Quantitative scores fail to capture all important features of learner performance. This awareness has led to increased use of qualitative data when assessing health professionals. Yet the use of qualitative assessments is hampered by incomplete understanding of their role in forming judgments, and lack of consensus in how to appraise the rigor of judgments therein derived. The authors articulate the role of qualitative assessment as part of a comprehensive program of assessment, and translate the concept of validity to apply to judgments arising from qualitative assessments. They first identify standards for rigor in qualitative research, and then use two contemporary assessment validity frameworks to reorganize these standards for application to qualitative assessment. Standards for rigor in qualitative research include responsiveness, reflexivity, purposive sampling, thick description, triangulation, transparency, and transferability. These standards can be reframed using Messick's five sources of validity evidence (content, response process, internal structure, relationships with other variables, and consequences) and Kane's four inferences in validation (scoring, generalization, extrapolation, and implications). Evidence can be collected and evaluated for each evidence source or inference. The authors illustrate this approach using published research on learning portfolios. The authors advocate a "methods-neutral" approach to assessment, in which a clearly stated purpose determines the nature of and approach to data collection and analysis. Increased use of qualitative assessments will necessitate more rigorous judgments of the defensibility (validity) of inferences and decisions. Evidence should be strategically sought to inform a coherent validity argument.
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