When referring to examinations, the Education Council means any test aimed at obtaining an official record of learning outcomes with a corresponding civil effect. In the view of the Education Council, exams in the Dutch education system should meet three essential conditions. They should be reliable, accessible and effective.
Reliable exams and examination procedures provide society with assurances on what has been learned. On this basis, the diploma offers value to pupils, students, further programmes of education and potential employers. Greater accessibility of exams may help raise the level of educational attainment of the population. The Education Council regularly considers how access to exams can be opened up and how competences acquired outside the education system can also be given due recognition, given that people also learn outside the formal education system. Finally, the Education Council also considers the effectiveness of exams. If exams can be taken outside of mainstream education, a cost-benefit study would be necessary and the logistical and organisational aspects would also require some attention.
The Education Council supports a final assessment at the end of primary education for the critical core subjects of language and arithmetic (and in due course also English). The Education Council believes that the subject of world orientation should not be assessed. The Education Council does not support a central uniform final exam, but rather recommends developing guidelines that allow assessments to be calibrated against the reference levels (Toetsing in het primair onderwijs (Assessment in primary education), 2011).
Establishing reference levels for language and maths in primary, secondary education and senior secondary vocational education ensures good matching between the sectors, guarantees a certain basic standard for almost all pupils and makes the desired standard clear for all pupils. Assessment based on the reference levels also has a diagnostic function during the school year, as it forms part of the pupil tracking system and is intended to decide the individual learning pathway of pupils (Kaders voor de referentieniveaus (Framework for reference levels), 2009).
Various measures are needed to strengthen the reliability of central exams in secondary education. One of these is a reversal of the marking sequence. First, a teacher from another school marks the exam, and only then is it re-marked by a teacher from the original school. It would also make sense to involve external specialists in examinations in senior secondary vocational education and in higher education. (Examinering: draagvlak en toegankelijkheid (Assessment: acceptance and accessibility), 2006; Examineren in het vmbo (Assessment in preparatory secondary vocational education (VMBO)’, 2009).
Tightening examination requirements is a second way of increasing the reliability of exams and guaranteeing the standard of learning achieved. The Education Council recommends allowing students in senior general secondary education (HAVO) and pre-university education (VWO) to qualify for the diploma only if they obtain passes in the three basic subjects of Dutch, English and maths/arithmetic. The Education Council also made this recommendation for preparatory secondary vocational education (VMBO), but in the vocational programmes English would be replaced by the vocational subject. To increase knowledge of these basic subjects in senior secondary vocational education and to improve transfers to higher education, the Education Council proposed allowing pupils of senior secondary vocational education (MBO) level 4 programmes to take senior general secondary education (HAVO) exams (Reinforcing knowledge, 2007; Transfer and talent development, 2007; and Examens in het vmbo (Assessment in preparatory secondary vocational education (VMBO)), 2009).
An essential aspect of the value of exams is the confidence that stakeholders have in the exam and the diploma awarded. At the present time, it is impossible to make any objective judgement of changes in the standards of holders of senior secondary vocational education (MBO) or higher professional education (HBO) diplomas. To increase confidence in the exams, the Education Council recommends developing a system of standardisation/equivalence for crucial vocational components in senior secondary vocational education and relevant parts of higher education. A second way to increase confidence in exams is to involve stakeholders in the education and examination processes by informing them better and more directly about the levels of attainment of pupils and students, and by building ‘communities of trust’ in which a relationship is established between the stakeholders, such as pupils, students, teachers, examination committees, programme directors, institution governors, further education and the professional field. Finally, confidence in exams can be increased by investigating how the statutory mandate of the examinations committee in secondary vocational education, higher professional education and university education can be better tuned to dealing with the recognition of prior learning. Following on from this, the Education Council proposed limiting the scope for recognition of prior learning to around 20% to 25% in diploma programmes. (Een diploma van waarde (Diploma of value), 2010).
To increase the value of diplomas, the Education Council also recommended the use of diploma supplements to present additional information on aspects such as additional subjects taken, certificates awarded elsewhere and any prizes won.
In 2002, the Education Council proposed that responsibility for examinations in Dutch education should be at arm’s length from the study programmes – with the exception of examinations in preparatory secondary vocational education (VMBO) and senior secondary vocational education (MBO) level 1.
There should be more emphasis on programme-independent examinations, segregation of roles between teaching and assessment could be improved (see above), and better arrangements are needed for exam content and exam administration (Work in progress: assessment in development, 2002).
For higher education, the Education Council even went a step further by recommending the voluntary joint development of a final bachelor’s examination for similar study programmes, so that students sit the same exams and can easily switch between cooperating study programmes (Examinering: draagvlak en toegankelijkheid (Assessment: acceptance and accessibility), 2006).
Anyone may participate in the state examinations for secondary education. The Education Council would like to increase awareness of this, but would also like to see this kind of facility becoming available in other education sectors. For higher education, the Education Council advocates the establishment of a special examinations body, that administrates its examinations independently of study programmes (Examinering: draagvlak en toegankelijkheid (Assessment: acceptance and accessibility), 2006).
Since 2003, the Education Council has also called for investment in a wider application of exams and procedures for the recognition of prior learning, including for mainstream education (Make lifelong learning work, 2003).
The education ministry has now introduced some measures to tighten examination requirements in secondary education. For example, the re-marking of central examinations has been improved (including a pilot for the reversal of the marking sequence). In addition, pupils taking the central examinations must achieve a pass in all subjects in order to qualify for a diploma. Furthermore, only one score of 5 (fail) is allowed in the three subjects of Dutch, English and maths. If maths is not taken as an examination subject, only one fail is allowed for Dutch and English. From 2014, an arithmetic test will also form part of the pass-fail scheme in secondary education. Finally, the Education Inspectorate will remain alert to any large discrepancies in results between the school exam and the central exam.