This paper presents the findings of a study designed to explore qualification users’ perceptions and experiences of reliability in the context of national assessment outcomes in England. The study consisted of 17 focus groups conducted across six sectors of qualification users:
- trainee teachers,
- employers, and
Findings suggested that there were some notable differences between the participating groups in relation to their experiences of assessment reliability and their inclinations to trust the reliability of assessment outcomes. For example, teachers shared a number of experiences of suspected and actual error in the production of students’ grades, and of securing subsequent grade changes for their students.
In the light of these experiences, teachers were disinclined to accept at face value the reliability of assessment outcomes. Among other groups, assessment outcomes were generally regarded as trustworthy and reliable measures of academic ability.
However, without access to information about assessment reliability, participants were unaware that reliability can be undermined by random measurement error. Participants discussed measurement errors in relation to student well-being, facets of the test and the test situation and environment, but such errors were deemed to be an inevitable part of test-taking and as having limited impact on the reliability of assessment outcomes.
It is concluded that efforts to enhance public understanding of assessment reliability, therefore, may be complicated by tensions between traditional, specialist conceptions of assessment reliability and what is perceived as relevant and useful by qualification users.