School & District Management

Rural Schools Trying Out Portfolio Assessment

By Alan Richard — October 31, 2001 4 min read
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A group of rural educators says it wanted a new tool to help gain something many schools lack: the ability to examine their work more critically and professionally.

The educators’ focus here during three days of training Oct. 15-17 was a new type of assessment to help them to do just that. It’s a portfolio-based approach devised by the nonprofit Rural School and Community Trust, the Educational Testing Service, and Harvard University’s graduate school of education.

For the past year, a team of rural educators has been developing and trying portfolios as a way of documenting and monitoring what the group calls “place-based education.”

Such education aims to build up or renew rural places by emphasizing community projects and by drafting members of the community into more active roles in the schools. The concept often involves projects designed to help students acquire skills in areas from math and science to teamwork and leadership.

Students, for instance, might work with natural resources, researching water quality in local creeks. Or they may exploit local business opportunities, by opening a small-town food shop, for example.

“How do we do all that and still meet the state standards? This is a way to do this,” Elaine Salinas, an employee of the rural trust, said of the portfolio project. Ms. Salinas lives on the Oneida Reservation near Green Bay, Wis., and works with rural and Native American schools in the region.

During the past year, some educators have given the portfolio process trial runs. They learned quickly that most anyone could show off his or her work, but that it took a well-trained, willing observer to really analyze the work. Many of the educators will return to their home states and communities and train others in the portfolio process.

“The way you get better at doing place-based education or anything else is by taking stock,” said Rachel B. Tompkins, the president of the Washington-based rural trust, which has employees stationed across rural America. “We’re really interested in having teachers and kids be reflective.”

Uses May Vary

The portfolio process can be used as an assessment of individual student achievement, of the collective work of an entire community-based project, or of both, educators involved in its development say.

The process calls for the development of portfolios that feature examples of student work and written analysis by educators, often based on the reflections of volunteers. Such volunteers look at the student work, giving their impressions and posing questions, during various types of structured sessions.

“It isn’t about the portfolio itself,” said Doris T. Williams, the national director of capacity-building for the Rural School and Community Trust. “It’s about teaching and learning.”

Ginny Jamarillo, the director of the nonprofit Colorado Rural Charter Schools Network, aims to find ways that her state could use the portfolios as alternatives to high-stakes state tests. The schools in her network need to show progress in any way they can to nurture state support of charter schools, she said. “Our best practices better keep getting better,” she said.

Cynthia Robinson, a language arts facilitator who works with teachers and students in the 2,900-student East Feliciana Parish public schools, based in Clinton, La., said her students often struggle to show what they can do on state tests, although place-based science programs did appear to help raise some test scores this year, she said.

“We do want to get away from the strictly traditional assessments,” Ms. Robinson said.

The portfolios aren’t necessarily designed to substitute for state tests, but they can help schools evaluate themselves for a variety of reasons, said Marnie Thompson of the Princeton, N.J.-based ETS.

“If this could work in rural settings, it’s highly likely that it could work in urban and suburban settings,” said Ms. Thompson, a Greensboro-based director for the ETS who is working on the portfolio project.

Added Ms. Tompkins of the rural trust: “We don’t really see this specifically as an alternative assessment system, although clearly there are people who want to use it that way. I hope it will help those teachers and principals in other places who are longing for some realistic way to communicate how well the school is doing.”

In the Navajo Nation northwest of Flagstaff, Ariz., two charter schools started by American Indian communities plan to make use of the portfolios.

Mark Sorenson, the administrator of the charter schools, said the portfolios offer different ways to assess student work, based on the type of project-based learning and teaching students there are doing.

The students are working to find ways to help their land heal from overgrazing, studying plants that might flourish in their desert environment, and looking for means for the communities to support themselves better.

“If you consider our jobs as educators to create educated, self-sustaining citizens, then this is exactly the way we need to go,” Mr. Sorenson said.

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