Wednesday, April 13, 2016

An Alternative to Standardized Testing? Portfolio Assessment

One sure sign that the Opt Out Movement is having an impact is the recent spate of increasingly hysterical defenses of the test from education reform advocates. When I responded to a typical anti-opt out piece in the reform minded Education Post, stating the obvious -  that the tests were biased against the poor and minorities, a featured Education Post blogger called me “immoral and classist.” So much for the Education Post’s goal of a “better conversation.”

While opt out is having an impact, states with corporate education reform friendly governors are plowing ahead with plans to make standardized tests like PARRC and SBAC a graduation requirement. Most recently, New Jersey made passing the PARCC test mandatory for students starting in 2021. This is wrongheaded in the extreme and is likely to result in chaos in New Jersey in a few years, as thousands of students miss the test’s arbitrary “cut score” and appeal to the NJ Department of Education seeking their diploma.

I do think it is fair of reformers to ask those of us opposed to high stakes standardized testing to offer an alternative. If high stakes standardized tests are poor measures of student knowledge, teacher effectiveness and school performance, what is a better way to assess these things? If high stakes standardized tests narrow the curriculum and reduce weeks of instructional time to test prep work, what is an alternative that broadens the curriculum and encourages genuine learning activities? The answer is portfolio assessment. 

Portfolio assessment is an authentic assessment that has the potential, not only to provide useful information on student, teacher and school performance, but that can also encourage genuine learning activities in the classroom and the broadening of the curriculum.

In New Jersey, portfolio assessment has been suggested as an alternative for students who fail the PARCC test. I would argue all New Jersey students would be better off if we just skipped the test altogether and went straight to the portfolio.

Here is how it could work.

A series of authentic assessments for each student could be gathered in a portfolio. Just as an artist, photographer or actor prepares a portfolio of work to show to prospective employers or clients, so too can a student, with the guidance of the teacher, prepare a portfolio of work that reveals learning accomplishments throughout a high school career. This portfolio documentation provides a much richer picture of the student’s learning for the teacher, the student, the parents and the state.

A teacher’s evaluation, too, could best be accomplished through a portfolio. A teacher’s portfolio might contain sample lesson plans, samples of student work, samples of assessments given to students, copies of observations, documentation of student learning, documentation of improved practice based on feedback from observations, documentation of professional development, samples of parent communication, student surveys and more. As with a student portfolio, the teacher portfolio gives a richer, more complete picture of the performance of the teacher than any standardized test could provide. A portfolio could form the basis of a genuine conversation between teacher and supervisor aimed at improved performance.

Finally, a school’s performance could also be best thought of as a portfolio providing evidence of meeting students’ needs. The school’s portfolio would include standardized test scores (given once every 3 or 4 years), but would also include reports on program, evidence of a rich and varied curriculum, documentation of meeting the needs of all children, documentation of efforts to invite parent participation in the life of the school, reports on hiring and evaluation processes and more.

Authentic assessments are time consuming and influenced by human factors that statistics cannot always control for. They are also much more valuable as tools for guiding decision making and for informing the public than are the quick, fuzzy snapshots provided by standadized tests.

Portions of this post were adapted from my new book, A Parent’s Guide to Public Education in the 21st Century: Navigating Education Reform to Get the Best Education for Your Child. Learn more about the book here.