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The Quebec Bureau Of Skills Assessment (QBSA)

Skill to overcome obstacle
We can clearly assess that this man has acquired the skill to overcome this obstacle.

1) Introduction

Our whole economy depends more and more on knowledge. Workers are more and more "knowledge workers" and not manual laborers. This enormous social wave, unfortunately, seems to break itself on the huge immobile rock of old-fashioned skills assessment methods.

Sometimes I feel we should decouple the assessment from the training (i.e. decouple the bar that must be leaped over, from the training given to be able to leap that high), and entrust assessments to some kind of independent, publicly-funded institute that would, at least indirectly, give the actual official grades and diplomas. I'll now try to explain this.

2) The basic metaphors: metrology and currency

Since I'm just thinking out loud in this article, I can't clearly explain my idea yet. I'll talk a bit about metrology and currency, then apply that to human knowledge:

2.1) Metrology. You probably know that near Paris, at the Bureau international des poids et mesures, there is a "standard kilogram", a platinum-iridium cylinder 3.9 cm in height and diameter, which weighs exactly one kilogram (by convention) [Fundamentals of Physics, 6th Ed., p. 7]. All national metrological organizations refer to this standard international kilogram, and all the calibrated scales in a country can eventually be traced to their national metrology organization. This is why scientists in a little laboratory in Timbuktu can easily collaborate with other scientists in a big prestigious university in the USA, or some manufacturing company in Japan, etc.

2.2) Currency: Legal Tender. If you've ever looked at a banknote, you've probably seen something like: "This note has legal tender". This means, for example, that if you owe 5$ to somebody, and you hand him a 5$ bill, that person must by law accept that piece of paper as payment of your debt. They can't say: "Well, I don't like that piece of paper, so you still owe me 5$".

2.3) Currency: Divisibility. One of the advantages of banknotes is that they divide value. If all we had was barter then, for example, you could barter your cow to get pencils, but you'd be stuck with a million pencils and no food or clothing!

If you mix these three metaphors and apply them to human skills, you get what you could call the "The Quebec Bureau Of Skills Assessment" or QBSA. The QBSA, like metrology, ensures that the assessment of human knowledge is uniform. Moreover, QBSA assessments also have "Legal Tender", so if you get your skills assessed, nobody can refuse to give you a job that requires that skill (unless of course you have other shortcomings), and no school can refuse to give you a course that requires that prerequisite, etc. Finally, the QBSA "divides" knowledge, so you're not forced to get a big fat "cow" of a diploma if all you need is a specific "pencil" skill.

3) Some possible advantages of the QBSA

The first three advantages have been discussed already: uniformity of assessments ("metrology"), universal recognition ("Legal Tender") and granularity ("divisibility" of big diplomas). Let's dream a bit and imagine what the other advantages of the QBSA might be:

3.1) Teacher's errors would be less easily hidden by their pride. Managers of software projects have long known that you shouldn't ask programmers to test their own code: their pride is involved, and they will have a tendency to hide or downplay bugs in their software. In the same way, a teacher (or a school) naturally wants his students to have acquired the required skills. His pride (and sometimes his job security or his government funding) depends on his students getting good grades. I've heard of schools tolerating organized cheating by students, just so improved grades would make these schools look better.

3.2) Student's errors would be less easily hidden by their teacher's fears. Having myself graded some papers at the Cegep and university levels, I can corroborate the claim that many students don't really how to read and write. How did these students go so far, and pass so many tests, without ever being told they didn't meet the required standard? One of the reasons is the fears of teachers, whether they are afraid of their students, or the other teachers, or the school management. But even if a teacher wrote his own exams and graded his own students, it would still be easier for him to give bad news to bad students if he could "hide" behind the QBSA. The teacher could say: "Sorry, but I'm just the messenger. If you don't believe my grading, you can go take the equivalent QBSA exam."

3.3) Greater transparency of assessments. Since the QBSA would be a public institution, all assessment information would be available to anyone. (A student could require that his name be withheld, but then no employer would consider his résumé.) All exam results, as well as the names of the students, schools and teachers involved, would be visible. The method used to assess that skill would also be public (so it could be constantly improved).

3.4) Peer pressure to improve. Bad teachers and bad schools would look bad, because their students would score lower on the standardized tests. Obviously, this would encourage them to improve. But good teachers and good teachers who, for whatever reason, end up with bad students, would not be penalized because the random, inter-school testing would detect those differences.

3.5) Reduction of useless training. Adult students who have plenty of up-to-date knowledge on current skills wouldn't be told they have to take silly beginner's courses all over again.

3.6) Increase in useful training. Old professionals who use their prestige and seniority to bluff their way out of additional training would be smoked out of their hiding places.

3.7) Advances in teaching technology would be encouraged. If a free open-source high-quality 3-week interactive computer course gave the same results in QBSA tests as an expensive 3 month flesh-and-blood university course, students would desert that university course, forcing a lame university administration to update its teaching material and/or teachers.

3.8) Less wastage of Government grants. In some State-funded universities, each student that registers represents more funding, so the action item becomes "Recruit!" The quality of students and courses becomes irrelevant, as long as the largest number of warm bodies occupies classrooms. But if skills are independently assessed, these gimmicks become hard to hide.

3.9) More serious comparaisons with other countries. While I was at Laval University, we were constantly told that our university was "one of the best in the world". If only to eliminate the propaganda of Laval's administrators (who have a vested interest in making people believe they're doing a good job), the QBSA would be worth it.

4) How could this be made to work?

So, there might be advantages, but how could we get this "QBSA" thing to work? Here are some thoughts on the actual implementation:

4.1) Assess the assessments, not the students. The QBSA would not be some kind of huge hall, with millions of study carrels for students to take all their exams in, and thousands of government civil servants to grade those exams. It would be more like a "watchdog" institution. It would assess skills, but most of the time it would do so indirectly. The same old schools would do most assessments, with the QBSA "assessing the assessment" of those schools. Periodically, the QBSA would force, by law, some random students to come and take exams at the QBSA instead of their normal exam in school. (This legal authority is necessary to get good random samples.)

4.2) Be the expert in skills-assessment. The actual skill that the QBSA would not "outsource" would be the skill of assessing skills. The QBSA would hire some Ph.D.'s to be able to assess tests in various disciplines, like Medicine, Law, Automotive Repair, etc. But it would mostly have a "core expertise" in skills assessment. The top researchers in that domain should end up working for the QBSA. In other words, the QBSA would not be just a large stockroom filled with paper exams, but it would explore new ways of assessing skills.

4.3) Eventually, cover all marketable skills. I don't see the QBSA as just for university courses. I would also see it assess skills such as mudding plasterboard joints, determining the environmental impacts of a new bridge over a navigable waterway, fixing an X-ray machine, etc.

4.4) Be a central repository for assessment tools. A bit like most countries who impose all publishers to donate a few copies of any book they publish to the national library, the QBSA could force anybody involved in skills assessment to provide a copy of their testing method. So, for example, if someone wanted to be tested on their ability to monitor aircraft landing gear tires for premature wear, the QBSA website could say: "OK, the institution that provides that test is Trade School XYZ, the description of what you need to know is here, the cost is so many dollars, and the next available slot for getting tested is on such a day, at such a time". But the QBSA could also say: "Ah, I see Trade School XYZ is slow to react, or asks for too much money to take that test, so you can take that test here, in 20 minutes, room 1234. You can pay cash or with your ATM card."

4.5) Encourage development of skills-assessment tools. If some company developed a nice tool to assess, for example, the teeth-cleaning skills of dental assistants, then the QBSA could declare that the standard test for that skill. That company would therefore get free and high-quality publicity. This would also encourage the industry to "crowd out" bad tests. My experience in the software industry is that university professors are sometimes behind the times, technologically speaking. But if the industry could come up with a good test for an up-to-date skill, the QBSA would adopt it. Companies in that industry could then require such a skill, and therefore force universities to update their curriculum.

4.6) Encourage professional associations. Normally, the primary responsibility for developing testing standards for some trade or profession should be the actual professional corporation. These associations have the greatest natural incentive to make sure all their members are well-trained, up-to-date, etc. These associations would have good reasons to collaborate with the QBSA.

4.7) No assessment of moral virtue. The QBSA would assess skills, not moral virtue. This doesn't mean that courage, justice, prudence and temperance have no connection with economic life, on the contrary! It just means the QBSA would not attempt to measure such things.

5) What are the objections against this idea?

Many objections can be made against this scheme, but I think they are answerable:

5.1) "Not all skills can be evaluated with one-hour paper and pencil tests". I never said they could be. Evaluating skills can be done with more than antiquated papers and pencils, and with tests that last more than one hour!

5.2) "Some skills cannot be evaluated". I agree, like for example the post-modernist crap that passes for Philosophy. If a bunch of teachers can't agree on what their discipline is, and if they can't even explain why their right hand certainly has five fingers, they don't need to be shielded from independent evaluation. They need to be taken off the University payroll. In general, I see it as a great advantage to have a system that is unfriendly to the "basket-weaving" crap in our universities (like silly types of "art", all post-modernist Sociology, Homeopathy, etc.).

5.3) "If the QBSA were poorly implemented, it would cause great harm". Yes, of course! This is true for any other institution, like hospitals, Parliament or the police. If you start up a new institution, for example a police force, and the first members are all corrupt, the quantity of crimes in your city will increase, not decrease! But "Abusus non tollit usum", the fact something could be misused doesn't mean it's bad in itself. Skills assessment is being done as we speak anyway. We don't have a choice between assessing skills or not (such assessments are already being done anyway). We only have a choice between doing assessments in a haphazard, unequal and obscure way, or in a consistent, fair and transparent way.

6) Conclusion

Napoleon apparently once said: "The greatest immorality is to do a job we don't know". The QBSA could put the fear of the Lord into incompetents [Pr 1:7], for the greater good of our economy, and our country.

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