Handling of Portfolios In College Admissions Stirs Host of Questions

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New York

High school guidance counselors and college admissions officers acknowledged last week that they are struggling to keep admissions policies up to date with regard to alternative assessments and affirmative action.

More than 2,000 counselors and admissions officials gathered here for the College Board's annual conference. The College Board administers the SAT, the widely used college-entrance exam, the Advanced Placement program, and guidance and financial aid services.

Participants aired their uncertainty about how to handle alternative student assessments, such as portfolios, which more elementary and secondary schools have turned to in recent years, and what role a student's race might play in the admissions process in light of recent court actions.

In a discussion on portfolios, for instance, admissions officers questioned how a student's highly individualized package could be standardized for consideration.

Eric Booth, the arts and education consultant at the Julliard School in New York City, said a student who likened his learning process to a garden might create papier-mƒch‚ bell peppers in which to store his documents for a creative portfolio project.

"I come to the podium terrified about how I'm going to store and file bell peppers," quipped Linda Clement, the assistant vice president and director of undergraduate admissions for the University of Maryland at College Park.

Ms. Clement cited questions about portfolios: Were they sufficiently informative for admissions; would they be able to identify high achievers; and would admissions officers be able to look beyond quantitative measures? "We're looking at words that jump off the page that place people in categories, like 'highest,'" she said.

When reviewing portfolios from home-schooled students, Ms. Clement added, there is a natural tendency to look at standardized-test scores. She noted that increasingly customized student applications might lead to even more reliance on those test scores.

Wisconsin Pilot

In a separate session on alternative assessments, Marlyn McGrath Lewis, the director of admissions at Harvard and Radcliffe colleges, said that her institutions have reviewed special submissions for years, particularly when a student excels in one subject and the admissions staff solicits an evaluation from a faculty member.

But, she said, "if each of those candidates were to present to us an idiosyncratic bouquet about the work she has done, we would have a lot of trouble with that."

Admissions officers also discussed the growing practice of competency-based assessments, which replace grades, course credits, and test scores with rankings of student achievement in given subject areas. Millard "Pete" Storey, the director of admissions for the University of Wisconsin-Madison, described his institution's pilot admissions project with schools that are using competency-based assessments. ("Colleges Move To Match K-12 In Admissions," Sept. 25, 1996.)

Mr. Storey reported that such assessments did not appear to inflate what would have been students' grade point averages. The university intends to conduct a longitudinal examination of the academic performance of the students enrolled through that program, he said.

Affirmative Action's Fate

Affirmative action also proved to be a hot topic.

Michael Greve, the executive director of the Washington-based Center for Individual Rights, argued that the nation should be a colorblind society and, therefore, not take race and ethnicity into account.

Mr. Greve's organization represents some of the white plaintiffs challenging the admissions policy at the University of Texas law school in the Texas v. Hopwood case. The U.S. Supreme Court in July refused to consider a federal appeals court ruling in that case that limited how much race and ethnicity could be considered in admissions. ("Supreme Court Refuses To Weigh Race-Based College Admissions," July 10, 1996.)

But Doris Davis, the dean of admissions at Barnard College here, said she was declaring war on anti-affirmative-action forces and the idea that unqualified students of color are being admitted in place of qualified white students.

Gary Engelgau, the executive director of admissions at Texas A&M University in College Station, gave an example of the complications admissions officials face in light of the legal uncertainty surrounding affirmative action.

He said his school had racial data about prospective students in its computer system. Although the information had to be "blocked out" at various places in the admissions process, he said, the point at which it could be "unblocked" remained a subject of dispute.

Vol. 16, Issue 10

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