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Portfolio Confusion and the Education Advisers’ Debate

By Michele McNeil — October 21, 2008 2 min read
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Barack Obama spokeswoman Melody Barnes’ statements today on NPR about her candidate’s support of student portfolios as a method of assessment have caused quite the dust-up. It even came up at tonight’s debate between the education advisers to the campaigns—Lisa Graham Keegan for John McCain and Linda Darling-Hammond for Obama.

Though there were pleas today for the Obama campaign to clarify the Democratic presidential nominee’s stance on the use of portfolios to gauge student achievement, I’m not sure that’s been accomplished.

In an e-mail to me before the debate, Obama campaign domestic-policy director Neera Tanden said: “Senator Obama has said he supports testing but wants to make sure our tests are better and smarter. He does not support replacing the current structure of NCLB with portfolios and to suggest otherwise is a willful misreading of his comprehensive agenda on education.”

Not sure what exactly she means by not supporting “replacing the current structure of NCLB with portfolios.” (I don’t think anyone thought he would replace the entire structure of the law.) What this does indicate is that NCLB and testing are very complex issues, and neither Obama nor McCain have been very specific on how exactly they would change the law as president.

During tonight’s 90-minute debate at Teachers College, Columbia University, Keegan brought up the portfolio issue, noting: “The problem with backing off of assessments and turning them into portfolios that are more subjective is that we can’t compare kids. That’s where we were before we had accountability.”

Keegan, who is McCain’s chief education adviser, emphasized that “state standards and the assessments have got to stay in place.”

Darling-Hammond, one of several education advisers to Obama, said quite a lot about assessment: “If you look at other countries, their assessments include relatively few multiple-choice items and in some cases none. Their kids are doing science inquiries, research papers, technology products. Those are part of the examination system.” (Are those examples part of a broadly defined “portfolio”?)

Darling-Hammond addressed what Barnes said—and didn’t say—on NPR directly:

She said in addition to standardized tests we need to look at other assessments. She did mention portfolios. They are used in the charter school she is on the board. ... And we have to get knowledgeable about what does go on in other countries. ... They routinely include elements like research products, they are scored, they are scored in consistent and reliable and valid ways.

In general, tonight’s debate, co-sponsored by Education Week and its Web site,, was vigorous, and pointed at times, and covered many of the same topics that have been chronicled here or discussed on the stump. (The archived Webcast should be available for viewing here as of noon Wednesday.)

The two advisers talked about teacher quality, the need for more research, whether money matters, and even whether either of them would like to be their nominee’s secretary of education. (They each ducked that question).

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