Dr Phil Rutherford
Assessment and RPL
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Exploring one of the most misunderstood, and misapplied, aspects of vocational education and training. 

Like a proud parent I continue to take a close interest in the way competency-based training and assessment have been applied throughout the VET system that we created oh so many years ago. In particular I keep a close eye on CBA - competency-based assessment - as one of my responsibilities while at the National Training Board was the development and implementation of the national policies on CBA and, as many readers would know, I have written a couple of books on the subject.

Some might ask why I was given this task, and the answer is quite simple: I was the only member of the Board, and one of only a few people in Australia, who at the time had been trained to conduct competency-based assessments. I had been trained in the UK by a well skilled and experienced assessor who had, herself, been trained by someone with a high degree of competence in the subject. (If I was to say that I held the D32/D33 NVQ award, and had been trained in D34 Internal Verifier award, then those in the know would understand what I'm talking about.)

So, in racing terms, I had a very good pedigree where CBA was concerned.

And like any (well, most) parents I have hoped that these elements of the system would grow and mature into what should be the healthy beating heart of a strong and vibrant process which drives individual, group and societal growth. But, sadly, my hopes have been dashed. What I have seen instead is a reversion to an age-old approach to assessment that school teachers and university tutors have followed forever. And to make matters worse these have been enshrined in the so-called competency standards (I'll explain why I call them 'so-called' in a later rant) used in the extant AQF qualification for trainers and workplace assessors and pushed by some as the de facto standard for assessments carried out in the workplace.

I'm not going to go into any great detail here about the problems that I see with this qualification. I have vented my dissatisfaction to the industry body concerned so often that I am sure they are sick of hearing from me. Instead I will explain here how assessment is supposed to work and the important role that RPL (recognition of prior learning) plays in it.

Competency-Based Assessment - The Facts

It is widely agreed that the two most important parts of any VET system is the standards against which on-the-job assessments are carried out, and the way such assessments are conducted. More important is their quality, and if this is lacking in either one then the system cannot be said to be rigorous in its processes and relevant in its outcomes.

By definition, the standards against which all COMPETENCY-BASED assessments (not education or training-based assessments) are carried out have got to accurately reflect what the individual or group must do, on the job and in pursuit of business and strategic objectives, and the environment in which they must do it. Any assessment of individual or collective competence against these standards has got to be reliable in that others replicating such an assessment will come to the same conclusions, and valid in that it does nothing but set out to achieve the objectives it intends to achieve. Coupled with this is the need for it to be transparent, in other words everyone can see what is going on, how and why.

Some people have added 'fair' to this criteria but this raises questions about what is meant by 'fair' - and to whom. For example, is a rigorous assessment fair because it aims to determine competence necessary for performance in a complex and asymmetric environment and as such helps prepare those undergoing the assessment to be better prepared for survival there? Or is it fair because it is a simple enough process that anyone can pass it regardless of what the future holds for them? Personally I don't use the term 'fair' in describing a good assessment process because it just isn't, well, fair to do so. In fact, trying to make it fair actually dumbs down the system while purporting to make it more rigorous and reliable.

But I am digressing on another rant. Back to the subject.

In order for any assessment to be reliable, valid and transparent, it must contain as few rules as possible. Why? Because it is a very complex process. What we are asking assessors to do is apply the same rules to every assessment and candidate (for assessment), and none will be the same as any other - even when two or more candidates work in the same area doing the same work for the same outcomes. None. All of them are different and must be treated as such. If we try to put rules around assessments which attempt to give every assessor guidance on how to conduct every assessment we will end up with more rules than we could ever follow - just as the processes are now governed by so many rules that it is a surprise that any assessments are carried out at all.

A rule of thumb is that the more complex the system or the environment, the fewer should be the number of rules we need to successfully traverse them. Competency-based assessment is an extremely complex (but NOT complicated) process therefore there should be very few rules concerning how they should be conducted. And there is.

Luckily for you I know what these rules are and I will now share them with you.

Most guidelines, and all of the training conducted for assessors trying to obtain their Certificate IV in TAA (Training and Assessment), suggest that there are many ways to conduct an assessment. There is discussion about Formative Assessment and Cummulative Assessment, and assessing candidates using written and oral tests and so on. Some guidance actually goes so far as to tell the assessor exactly what he or she should be looking for by way of evidence - a dumb idea but a very common practice. (Dumb because [a] with such guidance this will be all that the assessor looks for and [b] it is all the candidate will provide. Bang goes reliability and validity in the assessment.)

The truth is that there is only one way to conduct an assessment: A candidate will present evidence that he or she believes supports his or her claim for competence against a given set of standards and the assessor asks a number of questions. These questions are:

  • Is the evidence valid - in other words does it demonstrate what the candidate says it demonstrates?
  • Is the evidence reliable - in other words, would other assessors come to the same conclusion about it, or would similar evidence result in the same or similar conclusions?
  • Is the evidence sufficient - in other words, does it cover the whole range of competence that the candidate is seeking assessment against?
  • Is the evidence authentic - in other words, does it show something that the candidate actually did or does?
  • Is the evidence current - in other words, does it show that the candidate (still) has the required skills and knowledge and can replicate them in the future, regardless of how old the evidence is?

If the assessor can answer YES to all of these questions then the evidence does support the candidate's claim. If he or she answers NO to some or all of these questions then the candidate needs to provide further evidence in support of his or her claim. This is known as Supporting Evidence and the more Direct Evidence the candidate produces, the less Supporting Evidence is required - and vice versa.

It is as simple as that. There is absolutely no need to further complicate CBA by putting in rules and guidance as to what evidence an individual should be supplying (because sure as eggs such directed evidence won't give a positive answer to all of the above questions) or implying that if the assessor follows the rules then all assessments will be valid, reliable and transparent. By providing these rules the assessment automatically starts to lose its reliability.

This process is extremely simple, but why the powers-that-be have made it so complicated (as opposed to complex) is beyond me.

Recognition of Prior Learning

Another aspect of CBA that is in almost every instance totally misunderstood and therefore poorly applied is RPL. I have seen a couple of instances where RPL has been applied well but in the main such an application has been by those whose training have included a standard of practice that is accepted right around the world and not just that which has been devised here.

If CBA is, despite the rhetoric and so-called guidance, a very simple process then RPL is a no sweat at all task. In fact no assessment can ever be carried out without including in small or large part recognition of prior learning - and I'll tell you why.

All of the official definitions of RPL in this country have been a pure guess. One only has to look at the definitions of RPL and RCC (recognition of current competence) given in the literature concerning the TAA qualifications to see that the definition of one basically says that it is not the other. How definitive is that?

RPL, it is said, is recognising learning that has occurred in any form and any environment. This is true, but the emphasis in this definition and by those applying it is on LEARNING, in other words that which has been given by educators, teachers or trainers. I will admit that definitions of RPL do emphasis that the learning will have occurred anywhere, but when it comes to defining the differences between RPL and RCC it is only that latter which tries to suggest that what is being 'recognised' is competence. In other words, the on-the-job performance as opposed to the learning which has been gained. As a result organisations such as the Defence Forces (who really should know better) give us 'RPL/RCC' as a category of assessment. They do this in order to ensure that if the evidence being presented isn't one then it must be the other, that is either learning or competence.

The truth of the matter is that competence cannot be fully demonstrated, and in turn assessed, unless it includes learning (ie, underpinning knowledge) which, as opposed to knowledge gained instead informs the way in which skills are applied on the job and in pursuit of on-the-job business and strategic objectives. One cannot be applied without the other, and while skills and knowledge are assessed separately (in a good CBA system), their application is assessed as a whole. The reason for this is that SKILLS + KNOWLEDGE + APPLICATION = COMPETENCE. There is no other formula for it. Skills or knowledge, by themselves, do not demonstrate competence (no matter how rigorously they are assessed in a training environment). Only their application in the workplace will do that and here is where the learning comes in. Skills and knowledge are learned, but so too is they way they complement each other and the way(s) in which they are applied on-the-job in stable, complex and very chaotic environments. Therefore if we are to concentrate only on assessing the learning that individuals have achieved then we are miles away from assessing competence. Learning is an essential element of competence and while it may not be brightly highlighted in the standards against which the assessment is being carried out it can be inferred from the way in which individual and collective skills and knowledge are applied in the workplace.

Now - finally getting to the point - where and how do people 'learn' how to apply their skills and knowledge in the workplace? Generally through experience, or previous jobs or assessments. Or they may just figure it out for themselves, or watch others as they apply their skills and knowledge. They may even learn it through special courses which look at the ways in which unique and innovative ways of approaching work are covered. This gets us into the realm of 'learning to learn' and by itself would take a whole new page so I'll not go any further down this path. (You'll have to buy my new book for further discussion on this point.) What I do want to consider, however, is that like 'learning' there are many aspects of competence which cannot be observed during an assessment session.

Take, for example, the application of one's full range of skills and knowledge while employed at a particular function. As an assessor we can determine that an individual or group is competent at their task or function, but we cannot observe every single thing they do against all of the standards relevant to that task or function. Some of it has got to be implied - sometimes simply because the person is still employed and therefore performing to a standard satisfactory to their employer. (If the individual is not performing to the desired standard, and is not being pulled up for this by the employer, then this is an issue of competence on the part of the employer, not the employee. He or she may well be performing to the desired - or inferred, given the employer's inaction to correct it - level of competence, only competent against the wrong standards. This then becomes a peformance problem, and not one of competence.)

This is an essential element of competence and not always assessed during training, but one which will have a bearing on whether or not the skills and knowledge individuals possess are applicable to their workplace.

It is true that the purest form of assessment is that which is observed by the assessor. This is Direct Evidence and, when performed a number of times to the level required in the standards, demonstrates to the assessor that the candidate does indeed possess the desired level of competence. But it is also impossible to observe everything that a candidate does. Time and opportunity are just two reasons why this is so. The answer therefore is to assess evidence which does not come from direct observation, and here is where RPL comes in.

Assessment of evidence that does not arise from direct observation includes reviewing and asking the above questions about Indirect or Supporting Evidence. This evidence supports the candidate's claim that he or she is competent and can come from anywhere - volunteer work, past jobs or experiences, home activities, hobbies, other areas of specialistion or professional practice, and so on.

Examples: In the UK my team was involved in a project aimed at recognising the skills and knowledge possessed by women, most of whom had never held a full time job but all of whom were parents or carers. They were being assessed against management standards of competence and, while it was a long and hard job, those who remained at the end of the project were found to possess a high degree of skills and knowledge relevant to good management. All that they needed was an opportunity to contextualise their skills and knowledge and apply them in the workplace (ie, add the 'learning' and 'application' to become competent). One of these candidates later came to work for me and said of the experience that she had raised five boys so there was nobody who could tell her that she didn't understand man-management.

These assessments were predominantly carried out of Indirect or Supporting Evidence and therefore were RPL. Other assessments, even those carried out of individuals or teams at the conclusion of a competency-based training course, will involve to a greater or lesser degree the same forms of evidence therefore RPL makes up an essential element of all assessments regardless of how experienced the candidates are or the context in which their assessments are being conducted.

To talk about CBA without including RPL is to deny candidates the opportunity to demonstrate their full range of competence and, even though I pooh-poohed the idea above, is very unfair.

In summary, RPL is practised in every country in which CBA is used. It is called many things - Accreditation of Prior Learning, Accreditation of Current Competence, Crediting Current Competence, and so on. In each and every case it is exactly the same thing - an assessment of evidence that did not come from direct observation on the part of the assessor. Hopefully one day our system will realise that it is alone in trying to define it any other way.

Do you have any comments you wish to make about anything I've said above? Or do you have any examples of where assessment and RPL have been applied well - or badly - which you might like to share with others?

 Contect me on phillipr@3gpm.com and let me know your thoughts.

Copyright P D Rutherford 2009. All rights reserved.