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Portfolio exams--wave of the future or big cop-out?

Today's ed page has a startling story by my colleague Michael Alison Chandler on the rapid spread---and resulting score inflation---of portfolio exams in Virginia. These are collections of classwork of students with learning disabilities or insufficient English. They substitute for the usual state multiple choice tests in assessing those students' progress, and the progress of their school. At one Fairfax County elementary school, Chandler reports, the reading passing rate for English learners has gone from 52 to 94 percent and for special education students 34 to 100 percent in the two years this system has been in place. Sound fishy to you? It does to me, but I think it is going to force some interesting and likely beneficial changes.

I am NOT saying the teachers who compile their students' portfolios and the educators (who don't usually know the students) who grade them are trying to deceive us. I am sure they are doing their best to be fair and accurate. But it is difficult for empathetic human beings like educators to resist the temptation to err on the side of generosity when assessing students, particularly when we are talking about those struggling with disadvantages.

It is clear to me, and I suspect to most readers, that this system inflates achievement scores. Of course, so has the assessment system we have been using in schools since the beginning of public education---teachers grading their own students' work. We seem to have prospered as a nation despite giving many struggling students a break on their report cards. I don't think portfolios used in this limited way are going to ruin the effort to set strong national standards, but I think it is going to give a big push to the idea of introducing independent inspectors to assess the effectiveness of schools and teachers.

I recently reviewed a fascinating book by education scholar Richard Rothstein on this subject. He described in detail how school inspections work in England. I think the growth of state testing---and the political pressure to make sure not too many students flunk those tests---will mean more portfolio exams in America. That in turn will create a movement to have independent, trained inspectors assess that work, not teachers whose school district would look bad if they graded severely.

Just how far this will take us is hard to say. The English have had a lot of complaints about their inspection system, but they haven't gotten rid of it. Stay tuned. American education is in constant flux, and this seems to me a likely path for the next couple of decades.

By Jay Mathews  | November 19, 2009; 11:22 AM ET
Categories:  Jay on the Web  | Tags:  England's school inspection system, Richard Rothstein, Virginia Grade Level Alternative, inflated achievement levels, inflated scores, portfolio exams, school inspectors, state tests  
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People might like to know that the portfolio assessment was adapted from the
field of visual art, and that it has many advantages over the multiple choice assessment. Having said that, and having
taught both visual art and academic subjects, I would like to 1) point out both some basic pros & cons of a portfolio and 2) make a few suggestions.

Some basic pros & cons of portfolios:

Pros - Portfolios provide a much more
holistic view of student progress
(or not!) over an extended period of
time. Nuances that indicate other
aspects of multiple intelligences
may be picked up that would not show
up on a strict numbers/multiple
choice type of test. They can also
show the flip side holistically -
places where the student is having
difficulty that might not be readily
apparent on tests showing just
straight facts.

Teachers have to be much more
conscientious when evaluating
portfolio assessment because of the
myriad aspects of the evidence

Cons - The portfolio assessment is very
time consuming and, as pointed out
in this article,open to subjective
feelings on the part of the teacher.
A well-trained professional knows
how to minimize this, however.

The portfolio assessments are not as
easily measured as the fact-based
tests and are more difficult for
purposes of comparisons to other
students' achievements.


To obtain the most accurate and
comprehensive understanding of our
students' abilities, you need both
portfolio AND fact-based tests; it's
time-consuming and therefore not
cheap, but if we really want to be
fair, and to support the unique
qualities of each student, it's the
way to go.

To have a better understanding of
the portfolio process, educators and
parents(who are not already doing so)
might want to start maintaining their
own portfolios, whether it be of
their own work or that of their
childrens', over a period of at least
6 months to a year, and see how that
process resonates with what they know
of themselves.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | November 19, 2009 1:01 PM | Report abuse


In general, I'm a fan of the inspection concept for a very simple reason: currently no one inspects our schools at all.

For year after year after year, any school or district can do pretty much whatever it wants -- as long as it keeps its test scores in check. And if most of your kids are white and wealthy, test scores are not an issue.

So, without inspectors, we have no way of actually knowing what goes on in so-called "good schools."

In so-called "bad schools", the need for inspectors may be even more important. Obviously, these schools struggle and just as obviously, the adults in them don't know what to do to change things. Only with outside inspection could new information be brought into the system.

Finally, what about the vast majority of "slow growing" or "flatlined" schools? Inspectors here could tell us what needs to happen next to move these stuck schools out of the ditch and back onto the road.

Tests can tell us what kids know -- maybe. Inspectors can tell us why kids know things at some schools and not others.

Knowing you have bad test scores is not useful information -- if you've always had them. Neither is knowing you have good scores. And, most "in the middle" scores tend to the same scores just about every year. So, after a while, new testing information is useless. In fact, the more test data a school gets, the less useful it becomes.

Inspectors could be agents of continuous improvement. Test scores can't do this. This doesn't mean dropping scores altogether. Why not just have fewer tests and more inspectors. Use the test data for the "big picture" view on student performance and use the inspectors for the detail view of what and how schools work.

Steve Peha

Posted by: StevePeha | November 19, 2009 1:22 PM | Report abuse

Key thing to me is that portfolios and other teacher assessments are done for different purposes than standardized tests, so they complement each other, each providing information not possible with the other.

Standardized tests are intended to compare large numbers of students with each other in a cheap and practical way, so there are major constraints on what can be tested, and questions about harmful "washback" and curriculum narrowing. In-class assessments should, in my opinion, aim at improving instruction by giving students clear guidance on their strengths and weaknesses. They aren't usually intended to provide measures that are comparable between students from different classes.

There are ways of comparing and equating classroom assessments, but the statistical techniques require considerable training in psychometrics and significant resources and effort on the part of teachers and administrators. Such techniques may also be difficult to explain in a lawsuit to a judge or jury without any expertise in psychometrics, so standardized tests are a safer option on legal grounds. The extra effort of equating classroom assessments is well worth it, in my opinion, but I'm not the guy making these decisions.

Posted by: Trev1 | November 19, 2009 4:47 PM | Report abuse

I am a special ed teacher in Fairfax County and I have prepared many of these portfolio assessments. I think they are a wonderful idea... in theory. However, my experience is that the system is being terribly abused. Many teachers do not put work in the portfolio unless it is done perfectly, and for students with special needs, this frequently means someone is holding his or her hand and guiding the work to a ridiculous degree.

I don't blame the teachers completely for this. For one thing, in many schools there is considerable pressure to produce perfect portfolios. There is an unwritten rule that all students must pass, regardless of actual ability. In addition, thanks to NCLB, all students must be evaluated according to the same standards unless they are significantly disabled. That essentially means that everyone has to perform at grade level unless he or she is intellectually disabled (what we used to call mentally retarded).

Here's a wake-up call, America: not everyone performs at the same level as his or her age-group peers, particularly if one has a learning disability or even just a low IQ. Some kids are just not ready to multiply and divide in the third grade. They may not have mastered addition and subtraction yet. But we are required/pressured to provide evidence to the contrary, regardless of the student's individual needs. So much for the differentiation that is touted as "best practices."

I think having outside inspectors is an outstanding idea. I am in favor of accountability, and I am in favor of portfolio assessment. As it stands right now, however, we have neither in the sense that they were intended.

Posted by: spedtchr | November 20, 2009 3:13 PM | Report abuse

I believe that it shouldn't be portfolios vs. standardized tests, but rather both. Standardized tests should be one component of a student's portfolio as it gives a reasonably objective "snapshot" of the student's mastery level of certain things. But a portfolio provides a much more meaningful picture of the student.

Posted by: CrimsonWife | November 20, 2009 5:17 PM | Report abuse

What does a portfolio assessment tell you? At some point there must be evidence that a student is competent in the knowledge and skills taught, which a portfolio is supposed to house. We don't have a system with integrity for assigning a grade to student growth. A student in an Algebra 1 class who started the year not being able to multiply fluently or reduce fractions or but by the end of the year can do both has grown tremendously, but will not pass the Algebra 1 CST at the end of the year (California Standards Test). While this student's portfolio would show this growth, this student still hasn't mastered Algebra 1, thus would not pass the class. Their 'portfolio' may be worthy, but they still haven't learned Algebra 1.

Posted by: pdfordiii | November 21, 2009 8:01 AM | Report abuse

Jay, Do you believe that, especially for the students in question, multiple choice exams given one time a year are a better assessment of their learning?

Posted by: Jenny04 | November 21, 2009 10:29 AM | Report abuse

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