This week, a spokeswoman for Senator Barack Obama told National Public Radio that the Senator supports the use of portfolios to assess student academic performance in place of current No Child Left Behind (NCLB) testing requirements. If Melody Barnes’ comments accurately reflect Obama’s view, then they represent a significant departure from previous statements, and a step in the wrong direction.
Obama’s criticism of NCLB federal testing rules has been consistently tough, but neither he nor senior education advisors Jon Schnur and Linda Darling-Hammond have endorsed allowing the use of portfolios in their place. In testimony before the House of Representatives last year, Schnur argued that testing rules should be expanded to include measurable outcomes like college enrollment and scores on Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate exams “without reducing accountability and support for reading and math proficiency.”
Darling-Hammond’s testimony at the same hearing embraced “multiple measures of assessment and multiple indicators of school progress,” but stopped short of calling for allowing portfolios to replace standardized testing. She stressed that these measures must be aligned to state standards, and that such reading and math tests should comprise at least 50 percent of the total value of a new performance index. Darling-Hammond has suggested in the past that other ways of measuring students’ progress – such as including essays, homework and science experiments – could have some place in meeting federal accountability requirements.
Obama himself has signaled interest in portfolios before, but never in place of standardized tests. Last year he told a Manchester, New Hampshire audience that their state’s digital portfolios represented innovative leadership that should be considered in other states. In that same speech he said that NCLB “has done more to stigmatize and demoralize our students and teachers in struggling schools” than help them.
Portfolio assessments – essentially scrapbooks of students’ work that may or may not include standardized tests – do have a valuable place in the classroom. Used effectively, they can help classroom teachers determine individual students’ strengths and weaknesses to guide their instruction with interventions. In the hands of competent, conscientious administrators, they can even help principals evaluate teachers’ effectiveness.
But to consider switching NCLB’s testing policies to allow schools to use portfolio assessments in place of standardized tests would obfuscate, even negate, the law’s historic and widely-supported accountability goals.
In the 1990s, Kentucky and Vermont adopted portfolio assessments as substitutes for standardized testing. Two panels of highly-respected experts, a RAND Corporation review authored by Dr. Daniel Koretz and the Kentucky Legislature’s Office of Educational Accountability, found the use of portfolios for school accountability purposes to be highly problematic. The data provided by portfolios yielded unreliable comparisons because, among other reasons, teachers implemented them differently, including assignments of varying difficulty and not accounting for the varying degree of assistance and opportunities for revision students received on the work selected. Aligning portfolios fully with state content standards, as federal law currently requires, is also prohibitively difficult.
In 2007, the federal Department of Education approved Virginia’s use of a portfolio assessment, the VGLA, for low-performing English learners in place of other standardized tests. The approval was conditional for one year. Immediately, local school officials proclaimed to newspapers that now their schools’ test scores would rebound because English learners would be taking easier tests. The VGLA’s documentation demonstrates that to administer the portfolio assessment so that it is fully aligned with Virginia’s many specific, grade-level content standards, as required by law, would be extremely difficult, if not impossible.
A discussion draft introduced by House Education Committee Chairman George Miller last year would have permitted any state to use portfolio assessments in this way, perhaps as a bone thrown to the National Education Association, which has championed this strategy. Maintaining standardized testing for most students, while allowing other children, like English learners, to be diverted to a secondary track where accountability is conducted by portfolio assessments, would compromise the law’s most fundamental intent. Such a flawed system would incentivize segregation and overidentification, while the rates at which students learn English and move back into the education mainstream, already desperately low in many states, would likely sink even lower.
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