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Vermont Plans To Pioneer With 'Work Portfolios'

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Vermont would become the first state in the nation to assess student performance on the basis of work portfolios, as well as test scores, under a proposal unveiled last week by the state's commissioner of education.

The proposal, which could go into effect by 1991 if it is approved by the state board of education, represents what one expert calls "a new phase" in student assessment.

While some states--notably California and Connecticut--and several districts have experimented with similar types of assessment, the Vermont proposal is "forging into new territory," according to Chris Pipho, director of the information clearinghouse at the Education Commission of the States.

The proposal is aimed, according to Vermont's commissioner, Richard P. Mills, at providing a "rich picture of how students are doing."

"This is not a golf game," said Mr. Mills, who took office last spring after serving as education aide to Gov. Thomas H. Kean of New Jersey. "We can't reduce performance to a single numerical score."

The plan would also enhance teacher professionalism by enabling classroom teachers to get involved in developing and scoring the assessment, Mr. Mills added.

And, he said, the use of classroom products as part of the assessment would more closely link the assessment program to classroom activities.

"This is the kind of thing you want a test to do," said Pascal D. Forgione Jr., chief of the office of research and evaluation for the Connecticut Department of Education. "It allows the assessment to trigger the right behavior at the classroom level."

But Theodore R. Sizer, whose 1984 book, Horace's Compromise, urged the use of student "exhibitions" as a means of evaluation, called the proposal a "curious way" to change student behavior.

"If the object is getting kids to write more in school," asked Mr. Sizer, the chairman of the education department at Brown University, ''is starting a test the way to do that?"

"Placing a greater emphasis on writing by testing," he added, "is like placing a greater emphasis on curing cancer by allowing pathologists to study how people died."

Mr. Mills responded that the test would provide useful information on how well students performed, in addition to fostering worthwhile classroom activities.

And, he added, he has created a "conscience committee" to "assess the assessment as it develops" and consider new and better testing technologies as they become available.

"Anyone doing inventive, thoughtful work will have a ready student in me," he said.

'Starting From Scratch'

Mr. Mills presented his proposal last week to the state board, which is expected to vote on it before the end of the year.

If it is approved, Vermont would, for the first time, join the 32 states that test students statewide.

Unlike the legislatures in most of those states, the Vermont legislature did not mandate such a test.

"It is our responsibility to take on the issue before we are asked to," Mr. Mills said. "The legislature, the governor, and the public have been very generous, and have increased school funding by more than 40 percent over the past two years. We don't want to wait until the business community and legislature ask, 'How well are we doing?"'

Working without a mandate enabled state officials to consider carefully all possible options, he said, as well as to learn from other states' mistakes. "Other states made investments in the state of the art at the time," Mr. Mills said. "We were in an enviable position. We were starting from scratch."

At the same time, he noted, the lack of legislative pressure allowed them to work with local parents, teachers, and administrators in developing the proposal.

Writing, Mathematics

The plan calls for assessments in writing and mathematics for all students in grades 4 and 11.

The grades represent "check points" early and at the end of stuel15ldents' educational careers, Mr. Mills said.

The writing assessment would be conducted in two parts. First, all students in those grades would complete a writing sample, similar to those administered in a number of states, which would be scored by Vermont teachers trained in appropriate scoring techniques.

In addition, the students would also, along with their teachers, prepare a portfolio of three papers that reflect their best work.

The portfolio, which would be evaluated by trained teachers, could include work from social-studies, science, and other classes, as well as English, according to Mr. Mills.

"Writing is the business of all teachers," he said.

The math assessment would also be in two parts. The standardized portion would be developed by a commercial test publisher to conform to state objectives. For the portfolio, teachers and administrators must develop standards and protocols for the teacher-assessors to use, Mr. Mills said.

The proposal also calls for:

Assistance to local districts to develop their own assessments;

Challenge grants, known as "the gift of time," to allow local educators to study performance data;

The creation of "school report4days," during which parents and interested citizens can visit schools to ask administrators and teachers about student achievement.

The proposal would cost an additional $585,000 in fiscal 1990, according to Mr. Mills. The total state education budget is $167 million.

'Pyramid Scheme'

National testing experts, while praising Mr. Mills's proposal as bold and innovative, warned that it might pose problems in implementation.

"This is a more difficult thing to do" than traditional testing programs, said Daniel Koretz, senior social scientist at the rand Corporation. "It's easy to buy a test from a contractor, spend three hours giving it, and send it off to be scored."

Implementation will require "a huge pyramid scheme of teacher training," added Grant Wiggins, director of research for the Coalition of Essential Schools, the network of high schools that have adopted the reform ideas outlined in Horace's Compromise.

"It's going to take careful administration and watching of the budget," Mr. Wiggins said.

But if it is successful, other states may follow suit, he added.

"This is a new phase in assessment," he said. "People realize tests are not really serving the interests of reform, and they are looking for alternatives."

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