Federal Campaign Notebook

Remark on Testing Opens a Portfolio of Questions

By Michele McNeil — October 28, 2008 1 min read

A spokeswoman for Sen. Barack Obama sparked a mini-debate over testing last week when she suggested on a national radio show that the Democratic presidential nominee endorses the use of student portfolios.

There’s debate about what she meant by what she said—and even after Sen. Obama’s campaign clarified her remarks, it’s still not entirely clear where the candidate thinks portfolios fit into the testing mix.

In response to a question about Sen. Obama’s view on the No Child Left Behind Act, spokeswoman Melody Barnes said on “The Diane Rehm Show” on National Public Radio on Oct. 21 that “we have to deploy and employ the proper kinds of assessments, ... portfolios, for example, and other forms of assessments that may be a little bit more expensive, but they are allowing us to make sure children are getting the proper analytic kinds of tools.”

Michael J. Petrilli, the vice president for programs and policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, suggested on his organization’s Flypaper blog that Ms. Barnes’ comments meant Sen. Obama wants to “dump” testing under the NCLB law in favor of portfolios, which Mr. Petrilli doesn’t consider tests.

Later that day, in an e-mail to Education Week, Neera Tanden, the domestic-policy director for the Obama campaign, attempted to clarify Ms. Barnes’ remarks.

“Sen. Obama has said he supports testing but wants to make sure our tests are better and smarter,” Ms. Tanden wrote. “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.”

Also on Oct. 21, one of Sen. Obama’s education advisers, Stanford University professor Linda Darling-Hammond, addressed the candidate’s stance during a debate at Teachers College, Columbia University.

“If you look at other countries, their assessments include relatively few multiple-choice items, and in some cases, none,” Ms. Darling-Hammond said. “Their kids are doing science inquiries, research papers, technology products. Those are part of the examination system.”

Lisa Graham Keegan, an education adviser to the Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain, maintained during the debate that “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.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 29, 2008 edition of Education Week

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