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Portfolios Seen Promising in Assessing Young Children

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Assessing young children by rating portfolios of their work is a promising alternative to standardized tests, concludes a report that synthesizes the work of a consortium devoted to reforming early-childhood education.

In 1988, the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development chose 12 school districts of varying sizes and geographic settings to participate in an early-childhood consortium. The members made a commitment to improve their early-childhood programs and met periodically over three years to discuss common concerns, share their experiences, and compare notes. They also observed other consortium schools and met with parents, educators, and school-board members.

A report set for release this week by the A.S.C.D. highlights major issues the group tackled and presents summaries of each district's efforts.

The use of portfolios for assessment, it says, emerged as one of the "key themes'' for participants.

Because experts consider standardized tests unreliable for gauging young children's abilities, noted Mikki Terry, the director of professional development for the A.S.C.D., "one of the recurring themes any time you talk to early-childhood educators is how to appropriately assess and evaluate young children.''

The impetus to find alternatives has increased, she said, as schools have begun serving younger and younger children and moving toward multi-age units that are "harder to monitor'' than regular grades.

Among the consortium members, Ms. Terry said, there was a "high level of interest'' in assessing children by cataloguing samples of their work.

The report says portfolio assessment "allows teachers to create a record that follows a child over the years'' and holds the potential to enhance educators' knowledge of child development, encourage "differentiation of instruction'' to meet individual needs, foster parental involvement, and raise child and teacher expectations.

It also speculates that districts moving toward portfolios may be less apt to retain or track young children into special classes and more likely to view assessment as a "long-term process--for example, a four-year period of time--rather than a grade-by-grade approach.''

While "it may not be necessary to collect the same information on every child,'' the report says, portfolios are most effective if they begin when a child enters school and contain anecdotal notes, teacher observations, and narrative comments.

To derive the "maximum benefits'' of portfolios, it adds, districts must give teachers time and support to develop the concept, and teachers must become skilled in "aligning observational notes with specific behaviors or performances.''

In recent years, portfolios have gained favor among states and districts seeking alternatives to traditional tests. A statewide effort to use portfolios to assess 4th and 8th graders in Vermont, for example, has drawn national attention. (See Education Week, May 20, 1992.)

South Brunswick Cited

While the approach is being tried "in various stages and in various places'' with younger children, said Lynn Malarz, the á.ó.ã.ä.'s assistant director for professional development, the South Brunswick, N.J., school district was the "state-of-the-art consortium member'' in that regard.

South Brunswick's consortium report describes steps the district took to develop a K-2 assessment plan backed by teachers, administrators, parents, and policymakers. Besides setting aside time to study and test various options, the district enlisted the aid of a researcher from the Educational Testing Service.

Sophisticated System

What emerged, according to the project summary, was a sophisticated system for mapping children's progress through portfolios. Items in the portfolios include children's self-portraits at the start and end of the school year, interviews about their favorite activities at home, questionnaires soliciting parent input, word-awareness exercises and writing samples, and assessments of children's understanding of "the conventions of books and print'' and of their ability to retell a story.

The "biggest challenge'' the district faced, said Willa Spicer, the director of curriculum and instruction for the South Brunswick schools, was to assure decisionmakers of the utility and validity of the portfolios outside an individual classroom.

To address that issue, teachers and researchers developed a rating scale, which could be independently verified by teachers at other schools, to compare the literacy skills of groups of children based on their portfolio contents.

"While teachers are using it for instructional purposes, we're also using it to talk about our program's accountability,'' Ms. Spicer said. "It's wonderful that we can use the same instrument for both.''

Judy Zimmerman, a South Brunswick principal who participated in the consortium, added that developing the portfolios "forced us to identify what we valued and what was important for young children'' and to tailor instruction to their individual developmental needs.

Need for Synchronization

While assessment in general--and the district's work in particular--became a focal point for the consortium, Ms. Spicer said, the central issue for most members at first was "how can we teach [the early grades] in synchronization with the way little children learn?''

The report's overview and the district summaries cite challenges they faced in such areas as instituting "developmentally appropriate'' curricula, serving very young children, adopting multi-age grouping, moving from half to full-day kindergarten, promoting parental involvement, and training staff members.

Copies of "The Education and Care of Young Children: Report of the á.ó.ã.ä. Early Childhood Consortium,'' stock number 611-92109, are available for $10 each from the A.S.C.D., 1250 North Pitt St., Alexandria, Va. 22314-1403.

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