Should Portfolio Assessments Be Encouraged?

By Mary Ann Zehr — September 28, 2007 2 min read
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It’s a good time for educators and experts in the field to debate what kinds of alternative assessments for English-language learners work best, since assessment is dominating discussions about reauthorization of provisions for such students in the No Child Left Behind Act.

Don Soifer, the executive vice president of the Lexington Institute, a conservative think tank in Arlington, Va., has been trying to get the word out that the institute opposes the use of portfolio assessments for ELLs for accountability purposes. Portfolio tests base test scores on samples of student work.

The institute issued a 10-page report—writer Robert Holland’s review of research on portfolio assessments—this month that concludes portfolio assessments for use under the No Child Left Behind Act are a bad idea. The institute has also posted an “issue brief” on the topic on its Web site. The report and issue brief cite a couple of research panels that examined portfolio tests in Vermont and Tennessee and found them to be lacking. The assessments didn’t yield comparable data to other tests and were inconsistently implemented by teachers, according to the Lexington Institute’s summary of the panels’ findings.

But the Think Tank Review Project of the University of Arizona blasted the Lexington Institute’s 10-page report. Representing the project, William J. Mathis, an adjunct associate professor of school finance at the University of Vermont, wrote that the report “is more akin to a political document than a research report.” Mr. Mathis also contended that “selective use of research suggests the author either intentionally slanted the evidence or was unacceptably cursory in his analysis.”

I asked Mr. Soifer to respond, and here are excerpts of his comments:

“I wasn’t surprised that the ‘Think Tank Review Project’ targeted this paper. Once again, every single paper they chose to critique addressed a topic counter to the National Education Association’s legislative agenda. Also, once again, their list of targets reads like a Who’s Who of the nation’s top free market-oriented education reform organizations and authors. And, as Professor Mathis’ critique mentions, the project is ‘indirectly’ funded by the NEA. ...”

“Mr. Mathis seems to have a lot to say about Holland’s methodology. But he has absolutely nothing to say about the highly controversial methodologies of the Center for Education Policy in the research he has chosen to cite to support his assertions. Their work, after all, allies much more closely with that of the National Education Association and the Think Tank Review Project.”

Nevertheless, Mr. Soifer isn’t the only person skeptical about whether portfolio assessments can work well for English-language learners. Jamal Abedi, a professor of education at the University of California, Davis, has told me in several interviews that it’s difficult to create portfolio assessments that are comparable to regular state tests.

Both Arkansas and Wisconsin were forced by the U.S. Department of Education officials to stop using portfolio tests for English-language learners last school year because federal officials weren’t convinced they were valid. But at the same time, North Carolina obtained approval from the Education Department for its unusual “checklist” assessment that includes student portfolios as a component.

Also, in July, federal education officials sent the Virginia Department of Education a letter saying Virginia schools can use a portfolio assessment for ELLs, starting this school year.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.