Answer to "What is the difference between a program of assessment and programmatic assessment?"

Editor: Lambert Schuwirth

There are fundamental differences between a traditional progamme of assessment and programmatic assessment:

  • A traditional program of assessment distinguishes between summative and formative assessment. Summative assessment focuses on decision making and its outcomes are purely used to decide whether a student is ready to progress to a next phase or not. Formative assessment is used to provide the learner with feedback. A problem with this distinction is that the summative assessment is not very informative but is taken very seriously, whereas formative assessment provides a lot of feedback but is not always taken seriously by the learner (especially when it is provided in the context of a high-stakes summative environment). Programmatic assessment works with assessment which is always informative and always has stakes, ranging from low stakes to high stakes. That way all assessments contribute to final decisions but no single assessment can make or break the learner’s progress.

  • In a traditional assessment program each assessment is reduced to a pass fail decision and at the end of a study phase the numbers of passed and failed assessment are combined and used to determine whether a learner can progress or not. This often leads to arbitrary decisions. For instance ‘in order to pass 5 out of 7 tests have to be a pass’, or ‘ this examination counts for 30% of the total score’. In programmatic assessment no reduction of information (reducing the rich information of each test to a 1/0 pass/fail decision) takes place and all information is used to determine whether a learner can progress or not. This seems onerous but with sufficient staff development and support systems it is quite feasible and a return on (time) investment occurs through earlier detection of floundering students and more useful remediation.

  • In traditional assessment programmes unsatisfactory progress of the learner leads to resist or supplementary examinations, whereas in programmatic assessment it leads to targeted remediation. Resist are actually repeated measurements with the ‘same’ instruments and as such have several side-effects. They incentivise minimalist study behaviour (there is always the resit possibility); they favour false-positive results (negative results including true negatives have a probability to becoming false positive results; passing by chance), ineffective use of resources (high-quality tests for only a few students), etc. Targeted remediation means that the efforts are focused on the specific areas the learner was not good at and therefore is a more effective use of resources.

  • In programmatic assessment the learner has to take more control and accountability for their own learning (self-reflection, formulation of learning goals, agency in designing remediation, etc.) and therefore the learner has more opportunities to prepare themselves for self-regulated life-long learner. The typical standard assessment programme maintains the control within the organisation.