The examination system occupies a key position in vocational education and training reforms because it exerts direct effects on learning processes and structures. At the same time, large numbers of stakeholders in pursuit of different vested interests are involved in the further development of the system. Against the background of the interaction between impetuses from practice and from the regulatory policy or legislative framework, this article illustrates the changes that have taken place over recent decades with regard to examination structure, examination instruments and guiding principles. A forecast is presented which reflects upon these developments and their impacts on examination practice.
Examinations provide evidence of learner achievements and show their degree of mastery of the material they have studied. They provide motivation and assistance with steering teaching and learning processes in a targeted way. Viewed systemically, examinations also serve to support quality assurance and structuring of education and training courses. Certificates issued allocate positions in the employment system and in society. All of this means that examinations perform a diverse range of functions and are significant at an individual, educational policy, economic and overall societal level (cf. SEVERING 2011).
In order to be able to meet these requirements in an appropriate way, examinations need to be adapted to current developments within an occupation and (training) practice and to legal regulations and recommendations as amended. This ensures that valid statements can be made regarding vocational competence. The task of examination-related research is to support this process.
Over a period of almost fifty years, we can observe that further developments of examination stipulations have essentially emanated from the legislative or regulatory policy side of company practice.
The examination structures, examination instruments and guiding principles (cf. the Information Box for definitions of terminology) that have been used since the enactment of the Berufsbildungsgesetz (BBiG) [Vocational Training Act] in 1969 will be presented as examples to show which changes have taken place in examination regulations.
The examination structure states the organisation of the examination over the course of training and stipulates the number of competence assessment points. There are currently two models in use pursuant to BBiG or the Handwerksordnung (HwO) [Crafts and Trades Regulation Code]. These are the “traditional” option involving an intermediate and final examination and the extended final examination. In the case of the former conventional variation, the result of the intermediate examination does not inform the evaluation of the final or final. In the extended model, however, evaluation is carried out at both competence assessment points (parts 1 and 2 of the examination). Generally part 1 takes place after one and a half year.
The examination instrument describes the approach adopted and the object of evaluation. Examination instruments include aspects such as written tasks, specialist oral examinations, examination work pieces and company-based orders.
The guiding principles describe the basic design criteria for examinations. Since the 1980s, theoretical quality benchmarks such as objectivity, reliability and validity have been joined by the conceptual guiding principles of employment orientation and practical relevance. In the 1990s, the guiding principles of process orientation, flexibilisation, individualisation and authenticity were all added (cf. REETZ/HEWLETT 2008). This article will address the guiding principles of employment orientation and process orientation in particular.
When the BBiG entered into force in 1969, it established fundamental and binding standards for training and examinations in the dual system. Company-based VET, which up until this point had been largely been a matter of self-regulation for the private sector economy, now became a pubic task. The social partners and the state are each equally involved in the planning and implementation process. The objectives of training and therefore also of the examination were to provide broadly based basic vocational education, to facilitate acquisition of “the professional skills and knowledge necessary in order to exercise a qualified occupational activity” (§ 1 BBiG 1969) and to impart the required occupational experience. The act devoted a separate section entitled “Examination system” to the organisation and implementation of examinations. Provisions included the mandatory introduction of an intermediate examination to be held on an inter-company basis. The aim of this stipulation, which had not previously been a standard rule, was to identify the status of training. Examination requirements also became an integral part of training regulations. In many older occupations, the occupational profile and examination requirements had hitherto been set out in separate documents.
At federal level, the law as it related to the examination area was supplemented over the following years by recommendations issued by the Federal Committee for Vocational Education and Training, the predecessor of the present day BIBB Board. These provided further sub-statutory structuring and expansion. The first recommendation to be promulgated by this committee related to guidelines for examination regulations (1971, No. 1)1 . The aim was to ensure nationwide standardisation of the examination procedures adopted by the competent bodies via model examination regulations. This was followed by a recommendation setting out the basic principles for the conducting of the intermediate examination (1972, No. 9) and by further recommendations relating to programmed examinations (1974, No. 22) and to the implementation of oral examinations (1976, No. 33).
Key stipulations relating to examination instruments were introduced in 1980 via the “Recommendation for the standardisation of examination requirements in training regulations” (No. 54). This represented a reaction to differences in examination practice and in the way in which examinations were conducted in organisational terms. This recommendation set out an examination structure in the form of the intermediate and final examination and listed separate guidelines for industrial and commercial and business management occupations. In the case of the industrial occupations, the examination is divided into skills and knowledge tests. With regard to possible examination instruments, provision is made for work samples, examination pieces and written tasks. Oral examinations are only conducted as standard if required for occupationally specific reasons. By way of contrast, the commercial and business management occupations include both a written and an oral examination (cf. Figure).
This recommendation addresses the specifications laid out in the BBiG by stipulating specific examination instruments which relate to the occupational field. Parts of these mapped existing examination practice.
In overall terms, it is clear that the examination system was systematised and substantiated at a national level by the BBiG and as a result of the recommendations issued by the Federal Committee for Vocational Education and Training and later by the BIBB Board. Stipulations at statutory and sub-statutory level shaped and standardised examination practice and thus made a major contribution towards the implementation of national VET standards and towards quality assurance of training across all occupations in the dual system (cf. LENNARTZ 2004).
The changes instigated over the course of the following years had their origins in company practice and related firstly to guiding principles and then later to examination instruments and structures.
NEW GUIDING PRINCIPLES AS A RESULT OF CHANGES TO SKILLS REQUIREMENTS
In the 1970s and 1980s, new methods were developed in company-based training in the wake of the shift in skills requirements brought about by the deployment of new technologies. The aim was for learning processes to take place in a more self-directed manner in cooperation with other learners and for such processes to be aligned to the model of the self-contained activity (comprising the ability to act autonomously with regard to the planning, execution and evaluation of work). The guiding principle of employment orientation entered training regulations in 1987 when the industrial metalworking and electrical occupations were updated. Since this time it has been a fixed component of occupational profiles and also needs to be demonstrated in the examinations. During the 1990s, companies increasingly moved from a functional to a process-oriented organisational structure. The core elements of this development were alignment to cross-divisional business processes, a focus on both external and internal customers, and information and communication technology support (cf. GAITANIDES/ACKERMANN 2004). For skilled workers, this shift was associated with new requirements which necessitated greater harmonisation, securing and optimisation of work processes and flexible reactions to unforeseen events.
The emergence of the new guiding principle of process orientation was addressed in training regulations from the end of the 1990s onwards, and examination requirements were also aligned to this concept. When the industrial electrical and metal working occupations were updated in 2003 and 2004 respectively, the process-related imparting of training contents was explicitly stipulated and included in “acting within the overall context of the company” alongside the competence to act autonomously in the planning, execution and evaluation of work activities. The guiding principles of employment and process orientation continue to form part of examination requirements at both a structural and content level down to the present day.
ADAPTATION OF EXAMINATION INSTRUMENTS TO COMPANY PRACTICE
In a parallel development to the process-oriented alignment of companies, the beginning of the 1990s saw the materialisation of an impetus to structure examinations in a more practice-related way. An integrated examination was introduced at the point when the occupation of technical draughtsmen/draughtswomen was revised in 1993. This removed the previous separation of a knowledge and skills test and abolished the division between individual examination subjects. It combined practical and written parts of the examination and placed the focus on work-related orders and on self-contained activities from company practice. This led to a complete realignment of examinations in a way that was far distant from the stipulations set out in Board Recommendation No. 54. After initial piloting and evaluation, the training regulation was enshrined into permanent law in 2000.
The updating of the IT occupations in 1997, a process which involved both a new training concept and a redesign of examinations, represented a further milestone for the development of examinations. In order to be able to carry out appropriate testing of customer orientation and alignment towards holistic business processes in the final examination, new examination instruments were introduced in the form of company-based project work and integral tasks. These put the focus on order-related thinking and action. The company-based project work, which was a forerunner of today’s examination instrument of the company-related order, represents a real work task from the company which the candidate is required to process and document within a set time frame following approval by the competent body. In the examination, candidates present the work they have carried out and conduct an oral examination on the subject with the examination board. This was a departure from the principle of nationally standardised tasks and placed the focus on real and occupationally specific work-related orders. The fact that the final examination in the IT occupations was evaluated on two occasions demonstrated that the newly introduced examination instruments represented a challenge for examination practice. The difficulties identified included drawing up requirements for the holistic tasks and examination projects, structuring integrated assignments and finding appropriate subjects for the company-based project work that fitted in with the time stipulations. However, alongside these occupationally specific findings, the evaluation also revealed fundamental issues relating to assessment criteria and procedures, qualification requirements for examination staff and quality standards for examinations (cf. EBBINGHAUS 2004).
Around the turn of the millennium, numerous occupations containing innovative examination instruments were modernised and redeveloped. However, the large number of new instruments soon led to a virtually unmanageable “proliferation of terminology” (SCHMIDT 2005, p. 1). Within the scope of the written examination, for example, the assignments which candidates were required to complete included “practically related tasks”, “complex practically related tasks”, “practical employment oriented tasks”, “company tasks” and “cross-sectoral tasks”.
EXTENDED FINAL EXAMINATION PROVIDES A NEW STRUCTURE
Alongside these innovations at the level of examination instruments, a fundamental change to the examination structure itself was introduced at the start of the 2000s. Criticism began to be levelled at the intermediate examination, which is purely a vehicle to monitor the status of learning and does not have any implications for continuation of training or for the overall final examination result, and the extended final examination was introduced. The extended final examination was initially piloted in the production and laboratory-based occupations in the chemical industry from 2002 onwards. In 2003 and 2004, it was trialled and evaluated in the electrical and metal working occupations before being established in many other industrial and technical occupations. The extended final examination has been used in commercial occupations since 2009.
The multifarious reforms at the levels of examination instruments, examination structures and guiding principles have brought about significant changes within the examination system, particularly since the mid-1990s. These alterations have continued to leave their mark down to the present day. The main drivers of change have been new company requirements, a desire to map occupational skills more appropriately within examinations and criticism of the existing examination system. The specific implementation of these innovations was facilitated over a very brief period of time around the turn of the millennium via a wave of new regulations .2
In the mid-2000s, laws and recommendations were adopted in order to put the diverse innovations and piloting processes taking place within the examination system on an orderly footing. “Vocational competence” became a formal object of examination when the reformed BBiG entered into force in 2005, and the model of the extended final examination was also enshrined in law. This offers an alternative option to the “traditional” intermediate and final examination so that competence assessment can take place at two points in time during the course of training. At the end of 2006, the Board adopted a “Recommendation for the regulation of examination requirements in training regulations” (No. 119). This had been drawn up over a period of many years by a working group comprising representatives of the social partners, the Federal Government and the Federal States. This recommendation replaces Recommendation No. 54. As well as containing cross-sectoral stipulations for the examination structure of both the traditional and extended models, it also includes a catalogue of eight examination instruments. This limits and systematises the multitude of examination instruments at the sub-statutory level. At the same time, the recommendation incorporates a whole series of newly developed instruments such as the “company-based order” in industrial and technical occupations and the “customer consultation” (simulated discussion) in the commercial occupations.
Within the scope of a revision of this recommendation in 2013 (No. 158), examination times and the catalogues of instruments were readjusted. A list of “required and possible combinations of examination instruments” was also added. This means that a choice exists today between the traditional and extended examination. The examination instruments available are written tasks, case-based, order-related or situational oral examinations, simulated discussions, presentations, documentations using practically related paperwork, an examination product or examination piece, work samples, work-related assignments or company-based orders.
Competence orientation has been established as a further guiding principle over the course of recent years. This is a concept which has long been an object of debate both within company practice and at the academic research and educational policy level. The development of vocational competence, which today encompasses professional competence, autonomy and social competence, was enshrined as a goal of teaching and as part of the educational remit of vocational schools as long ago as 1996, when the learning field concept originated. On the company side, the notion of competence orientation was introduced in 2014 via the adoption of Board Recommendation No. 160 “Structure and Arrangement of Training Regulations – training profile, general training plan”. This recommendation equates the “vocational competence” stipulated in the BBiG with the definition of competence given in the German Qualifications Framework. Training is currently underway in the first occupations which have been developed on the basis of this Board Recommendation. The extent to which this guiding principle will be addressed and specified in terms of the way in which it relates to examinations via a vehicle such as a Board Recommendation remains to be seen. Initial research results show that competence-based approaches are already in evidence in present examinations and that these could be further developed in a targeted manner (cf. LORIG et al. 2014).
Binding stipulations introduced via laws and recommendations and innovations that have emerged from company practice have led to the further development of examination regulations during the course of the past decades. The interaction of these aspects has produced a beneficial effect on the examination system. The intention pursued has been to map occupational requirements in a suitable way in examinations and to enable valid statements to be made regarding the acquisition of vocational competence within the respective occupation. Reforms to examination structures, examination instruments and guiding principles usually constitute a challenge for examination practice. Action needs to be taken within time frames which are frequently brief and against the background of altered requirements to draw up examination tasks, notify and train examination staff, develop support materials such as evaluation grids and organise the execution of the examinations.
Although the changes that have been instigated from within company practice have had a material effect in driving the examination system forwards, systematisation and standardisation of examination regulations via legal provisions in conjunction with Board Recommendations is indispensable to examination practice in order to be able to guarantee quality and legal certainty.
Examination practice is fundamentally the “final link” in the chain and therefore bears the task of implementing reforms in the dual system on the basis of the regulatory instruments that have been enacted. Nevertheless, it also makes a major contribution to ensuring that the intended objectives of these reforms are met. Examination requirements do not merely serve as a “secret curriculum”. Examinations have a key role to play in reforming VET because they exert direct effects on training, teaching and learning processes and on VET structures. Despite their huge significance, examinations in the dual system have been the object of relatively little research in the past. Boosting the amount of research conducted in this field would be an appropriate step to take given the importance of examinations in individual, educational policy, economic and overall societal terms and in light of the fact that further issues have yet to be clarified. Academic research findings could assist in the analysis of both historical and current developments. They may also help with creating a firm research basis for innovations, supporting the introduction of reforms and drawing up recommendations for the further development of the examination system.
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REETZ, L.; HEWLETT, C.: Das Prüferhandbuch. Eine Handreichung zur Prüfungspraxis in der beruflichen Bildung. Hamburg 2008
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Research Associate in the “Customer Service Occupations, Cross-Cutting Tasks” Division at BIBB
Translation from the German original (published in BWP 2/2018): Martin Kelsey, GlobalSprachTeam, Berlin