Schoolwatch: Failing to Measure Up

If the high priests of school reform have their way, true-false answers and multiple choice questions are headed for the graveyard of scholastic history. Rote-memory, drill, and measurement of mere lower-order skills have been replaced by an emphasis on measuring “metacognitive processes and attitudes.” In the place of cut-and-dried standardized testing, the teacher of the future will “assess portfolios of learning experiences.”

Portfolios are collections of students’ work, such as essays, personal journals, open-ended questions, hands- on tasks, and works of art. The contents of portfolios, often selected by students themselves, may be collected over one or more school years. Portfolios may be evaluated by teams of “raters” and student peer “reviewers.”

Why should this more inclusive, convivial testing medium be resisted? After all, educators have long acknowledged the limitations of traditional standard tests. Master teachers have always sought to measure their students’ achievement in various ways. And, aside from its testing properties, a portfolio consisting of serious academic work can enhance academic learning.

Prominent education leaders, such as Richard Mills, the new education commissioner of New York State, claim it yields a “rich array” of valid, reliable testing data. But other educators, such as Vermont teacher Peter Berger, denounce it as “nakedly subjective.”

To start with, portfolio contents may differ radically, and students may complete their portfolio tasks in different time periods. Also, Edward Lahler, New York’s assistant state commissioner for assessment, points out, “The same work scored in a different location by a different scorer at a different time could produce a different result.”

Portfolio scoring guides have a semblance of objectivity, insofar as they are elaborately prescriptive. Nonetheless, they generate mainly subjective evaluations of students’ work. The Writing Assessment Analytic Guide, for instance, requires English teachers to score portfolio papers according to five hydra- headed criteria. To the various components of each of these, they must in addition apply five scoring levels, labeled Extensively, Frequently, Sometimes, Rarely, or Non-Storable. Any kinship of these levels to old- fashioned letter grades—A’s, B’s, and so on—is defensively denied.

A roomful of English teachers cannot score portfolios consistently on so vague a basis. Nor could their scoring be reliably compared. Moreover, to the extent that evaluations are collaborative, further discrepancies are guaranteed.

Teachers have committed countless hours attempting to validate these unworkable scoring programs. Millions of taxpayers’ dollars have been spent on their design and implementation, including retraining teachers to conform to their byzantine instructions. Portfolio assessment costs at least $10 per student as compared to $2 to $3 for a multiple-choice test.

More troubling, computerized portfolios have the capacity to efface the privacy of students and their families. Some portfolio projects, with titles such as “Wellness and Me,” question students on intimate matters, e.g., “When you have sex, how often do you … use … birth control pills, a condom, foam, diaphragm, or IUD? … During the week how many hours do you attend services . . . at a church or synagogue? . . . In the last year, how often, if at all, have you thought about killing yourself?”

As Ron Sunseri, an Oregon state representative, warns, the electronic storing of portfolio contents makes possible, not only classroom sharing of such information, but its instant communication among teachers, to other schools, and even to government agencies and future employers.

Finally, portfolio assessment and similar reform fashions mask the nation’s real educational predicament: poor achievement. Traditional testing, imperfect as it is, does not cause students to perform poorly. Weak classroom discipline, nonacademic curricula, insufficient homework, soft grading, and a host of wrongheaded pedagogies are sabotaging their achievement.

Portfolios are not immune to these practices. Thus a nine-year-old girl’s sadly lacking portfolio, as examined by her father in an effort to comprehend her inability to read: What he found—the fruit of an entire marking period—was a few drawings, paste- up reports, and some cubes colored red. Questioning his daughter’s teacher about her deficient reading, the father was met with concern about her self-esteem.


  • Candace de Russy

    Candace de Russy is a nationally recognized scholar on education and cultural issues and an Adjunct Fellow at Hudson Institute.

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