Putting Portfolios to the Test
Teachers in Vermont have embraced student portfolios as effective learning tools. But the state's desire to score them and use the results to compare schools has many educators frustrated and angry
The children's names have been changed at the school's request.
Soon we were moved to a different concentration camp. By then it was winter. Sometimes our wooden clogs would freeze to the ground. When the guards were not looking we might risk a severe beating or our lives by kicking our friends' clogs loose. If they didn't get loose they couldn't work, and if they couldn't work they couldn't eat, and if they couldn't eat they would die.
With these words, Henry Tucker was able to end the nightmares. A 4th grader at Brattleboro (Vt.) Academy School, Henry had been having trouble sleeping after he went with a friend to hear Walter Ziffer, a Czechoslovakian Jew, recount his experience in concentration camps during the Holocaust.
Henry poured every detail he could remember into an 18-page rough draft. In the final version—three pages typed, single-spaced—the vivid tale, simply written, is powerful. Henry's teacher, Michele Cross, has saved this and his other writings in a manila folder filed in a blue milk crate. One look through the folder, she says, shows what Henry is capable of.
Cross has kept folders of student writing for years. But now, for the first time, the Vermont Department of Education wants a peek. As part of a statewide assessment program of 4th and 8th graders—the first of its kind in the country—Cross has been helping her students collect samples of their writing and math work in portfolios. The state hopes to use the work to measure the progress of its students and schools.
“To teachers, it is clearly something valuable,” Cross says of the portfolio project. “We knew all along that it was the right way to monitor a kid's progress. It beats the standardized test any day to figure out how a kid works and how he or she thinks.”
The brainchild of Vermont Commissioner of Education Richard Mills, the portfolio project is a bold foray into education reform. Though the vision was Mills', he went straight to teachers to work out the details. Over several months during 1987, Mills crisscrossed the state listening to teachers' ideas about assessment. And it was teachers he called together to design the program.
His efforts generated broad interest in portfolios around the state. When the department of education asked 47 randomly picked schools to be part of the pilot project in 1990, 90 additional schools signed up, as well. The legislature fully funded the pilot year and the statewide launch in 1991.
Other states are keeping a close eye on the Vermont project. When planning began, no other state was contemplating widespread use of portfolios. Now, according to Vermont statistics, 17 states, representing 46 percent of the nation's students, have committed to developing assessments that include a portfolio component.
This growing interest is surprising given that portfolios have not yet been thoroughly tried and tested. What's more, the costs of switching from tests to portfolios—in both money and time—can be steep. Scoring a multiple-choice test takes about 10 minutes and costs between 5 and 10 cents. Reading a set of essays or math problems, on the other hand, costs considerably more and can take several days.
But reformers have embraced portfolios as an antidote to standardized tests, which many educators complain are not in line with the curriculum—or the demands of modern society.
To illustrate the gap between what standardized tests measure and the habits of mind schools should be nurturing, renowned educator Donald Graves cites a study that compared the skills of graduating seniors at 100 high schools with the skills new jobs demand. Nearly half of the seniors could do little more than fill in blanks and answer questions following the reading of a few paragraphs, the types of tasks often found on standardized tests. These skills filled the requirements for fewer than 2 percent of the new jobs.
The vast majority of jobs demands much more. Employees have to know how to frame questions that will lead to a solution or improvement. They have to be able to create a process that will help them answer the questions and to evaluate whether they have sufficiently explored an issue. “The new jobs are in problem solving and problem finding,” Graves points out. “But we're still turning out kids who are trained to answer questions.”
The purpose of the Vermont portfolio project is two-fold: to encourage a shift in classroom work from “drill and skill” to thinking and problem solving and to provide student-performance data the state can use to evaluate and compare schools.
There is already evidence of genuine progress toward the first objective. Throughout the state, 4th and 8th grade classrooms are indeed changing as a result of the project, largely because of the extensive teacher training component of the program. At small meetings, teachers have been showing fellow teachers how much more can be accomplished when students are given authentic work to do and are asked to meet higher standards.
It is in meeting the second objective that the portfolio project has faltered. The state had planned to have teachers score portfolios and to publish the results for comparison purposes. But it has discovered that teachers' scoring is not reliable enough to compare schools fairly. So state officials are fine-tuning the scoring system and scrambling to train teachers to use it more effectively. But in the meantime, much to the dismay of teachers, Vermont will rely on more conventional tests to get some of the comparative data it needs to rate schools.
Vermont education officials say this is a mere setback and that they are in the portfolio business for the long haul. But some observers worry that the scoring problem may prove intractable and ultimately undermine the whole project.
When Geof Hewitt interviewed for a job with the Vermont Department of Education in the fall of 1988, he was asked what he knew about writing assessment. As a professional writer, he'd taught young children from time to time but had never had his own class. He knew nearly nothing about assessment but somehow managed to bluff his way into the job.
Soon after settling in, Hewitt was called into Richard Mills' office. The commissioner explained that there was a sense around the state that the schools had strong writing programs but did not shine in math. But no one could be sure whether this was the case since Vermont had never tested its students statewide. Mills wanted to give the public specific gauges of students' progress. “It is our responsibility to take on the issue before we are asked to,” Mills told Education Week at the time. “The legislature, the governor, and the public have been very generous and have increased school funding by more than 40 percent over the past two years. We don't want to wait until the business community and legislature ask, `How well are we doing?' “
Mills told Hewitt what he'd heard traveling around the state talking to teachers about assessment. Everywhere he went, he said, teachers begged him: If you are going to test how well our students write and how well they think mathematically, don't ask them to give short responses or to bubble in answers. Please look at their real work.
To Mills, this meant portfolios. He asked Hewitt to pull together a committee of teachers to study what a writing portfolio for 4th and 8th grade students might look like. Another group would be formed to explore a math portfolio for the same grades.
When choosing the seven teachers for the committee, Hewitt looked more for human qualities than expertise. He wanted teachers with a sense of humor and a real enthusiasm about what writing could do in the classroom. Hewitt asked his team to meet only three times; that, he thought, would give him enough material to write up a report that Mills could take to the legislature. But after the third meeting, the committee had barely begun to discuss what would actually go into a portfolio. The members, who worked without pay, insisted on meeting every three weeks until the job was done. The exchanges were exciting, Hewitt remembers, like highly focused faculty meetings—only the teachers weren't discussing lunch duty; they were talking about how to make better writing happen in schools.
“These teachers were so dedicated,” Hewitt recalls. “I learned that they probably didn't have an awful lot of opportunity to come together with other teachers to share similar concerns and interests.”
In time, the committee decided on a three-pronged approach to assessment: the portfolio, the “best piece,” and a uniform test.
The centerpiece of the program would be the portfolio, a collection of each student's writing, which should include a poem, short story, play, or personal narration; a personal response to an exhibit, current event, or book; and one prose piece for 4th graders and three prose pieces for 8th graders.
From that collection, the student and teacher should choose a “best piece,” the example they think demonstrates the student's most impressive writing.
Finally, to satisfy the need for a purely objective, standard measure, the 4th and 8th grade students would take a writing test. They would draft and polish an essay in response to a writing prompt.
But during the committee's ninth meeting, the planning process came to a screeching halt when Hewitt tried to move the discussion from what might go into a portfolio to how it should be assessed. The teachers went ballistic. “For some reason—and I've never been able to figure this out—the committee members unanimously assumed that we wouldn't be assessing the portfolio,” he says, “that the portfolio would exist just for what it can do in the classroom, for instructional purposes.”
The committee rigorously debated the issue with Hewitt. The teachers insisted that scoring would destroy the whole concept of the portfolio as a learning tool. The portfolio, they argued, should exist to give teachers and parents a tangible record of each student's weaknesses and strengths, information they needed to guide the student's future studies. Hewitt found himself being persuaded by the teachers, and he took their concerns to the commissioner. But Mills was unmoved. He made it clear that the scoring requirement was nonnegotiable.
The committee grudgingly pushed ahead and came up with a 20-page draft proposal by Thanksgiving of 1989. More than 2,000 copies—written in calligraphy to make them look more inviting than typical government documents—were sent to teachers around the state for comment. What the committee got back was a taste of reality. The teachers told the members that their vision was too ambitious and that they needed to scale things back. The committee, for example, had suggested scoring the portfolio on 16 criteria. The teachers complained that they would never be able to juggle so many criteria at once. They encouraged the committee to pare the number down. “It was a perfect example of getting things out of the ivory tower and into the hands of the people who are going to have to work with it,” Hewitt says.
Back at the drawing board, the committee narrowed the assessment criteria to five: purpose, organization, detail, voice, and usage. Teachers would assign each piece in the student portfolio a number grade, one to four, for each criterion. Because the committee wanted the teachers—and the public—to focus more on the work behind the number instead of the number itself, it carefully specified what each grade signified. For example, a piece that received a four—the top rating—for “purpose” would maintain a clear purpose and demonstrate an understanding of the audience and task. A piece with top-rated “organization” would exhibit ideas developed in-depth and would flow smoothly and logically from beginning to end. High-rated “details” would be vivid, effective, explicit, and pertinent. A four in “voice” would mean that the student's own voice was evident and enhanced the personal expression. To rate the highest in “usage,” there would be few, if any, errors in grammar and mechanics.
“My dream is to read a headline that says: `Bennington Schools Rank Highest In Voice,' “ Hewitt says of the committee's efforts to raise the level of discussion about students' work above the numbers.
Meanwhile, the mathematics committee, following a similar process, established seven criteria for judging math portfolios. Based largely on the standards set by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, scorers would measure students' problem-solving and communication abilities.
Those involved in the planning of the project soon understood that classrooms would have to be organized so students could generate meaningful work to include in the portfolios; it was clear that many teachers would have to change their teaching styles, some radically. The organizers also realized that if portfolios were to be used to hold teachers accountable, the state had an obligation to train them thoroughly.
Jill Rosenblum, a 4th grade teacher, was so vocal about the need for teacher training that she was later recruited by the state to head that effort in mathematics. “I let people know that they needed to do right by the teachers if they were going to hang them out to dry,” she says. Mills shared her conviction. Half of the project budget approved by the legislature was earmarked for professional development.
The planning committees kicked off the pilot project in September 1990 at the Sheraton Hotel in Burlington, which had a conference center with a room big enough to accommodate the 500 4th and 8th grade teachers invited. When the teachers converged in the cavernous hall, they were handed a thick notebook, which they were asked to read by the end of the day. But there was hardly time for that. After a morning of speeches and a quick lunch, the teachers were divided into smaller groups led by committee members. The organizers wanted to re-create the kind of passionate, intimate discussions that had gotten the committees so excited. They hoped it would give the teachers a feeling of ownership. But there were too many people in the room; the teachers couldn't hear each other over the incredible din. The afternoon began to drag on. What had already been a long, trying day went into overtime when the governor arrived to speak later than expected.
“I don't think we knew the meeting was a failure until two or three days later,” Hewitt recalls. It was then that he and the other organizers realized that they had tried to do too much too quickly with too many people. They knew they would have to do a better job next time; the future of the project depended on it.
Brattleboro, though the third largest city in the state, has the feel of a typical Vermont town. Downtown—a few blocks at a crossroads—consists of old brick buildings pressed up against a backdrop of green mountains. The glass storefronts proudly display sturdy cotton clothing, outdoor equipment, and hardware—staples for the artists, farmers, and blue-collar workers who populate the area.
Outside of town, clapboard houses with wrap- around porches have sprung up where communes once thrived in the 1960s. Local farmers work land passed on from generation to generation. It's a town accustomed to accommodating people with diverse interests and lifestyles.
The townspeople have known experiments in education. Many, for example, can recall the days of open classrooms. But these days, locals aren't aware that anything revolutionary is going on; they think their public schools are pretty solid.
Tucked behind a gleaming white Congregational church with a clock tower steeple is the Brattleboro Academy School, a low, flat brick building that conforms to most people's idea of the typical American school. This is where Michele Cross teaches her 4th graders and where the Vermont portfolio project is having a visible impact. Cross, who in many ways considers herself old-fashioned, feels at home in the Academy School. Dressed in a madras jumper over a crisp white blouse, she explains the sign taped outside her classroom door, a picture of a baseball hat with a diagonal red stripe across it. “It's real popular now, boys wearing baseball hats,” she says. “But when I was in school, it was not allowed. These days some teachers allow them, but I don't.”
Cross' 20 years of teaching have made her skeptical of passing fancies—especially in education. Three years ago, when Cross attended the kickoff meeting for the portfolio project at the Sheraton in Burlington, she was surprised by the fanfare but dubious about the plan. “I'd like to take a time machine and go ahead 10 years to find out if we are still doing this,” she remembers thinking at the time. “It could just be a pendulum swing.”
But now, even if the pendulum swings, Cross will not go back to teaching the way she did before. For here, in her classroom, the portfolio project is achieving one of its two goals: It is changing the way students learn. For Cross, the most dramatic change has been in mathematics.
She describes the transformation by pulling out one of her student's math portfolios. At first glance, it looks like a collection of work sheets. But instead of orderly rows of problems in the teacher's handwriting with spaces for the student's answers, childish scrawl covers most of the page. That's because the point of the portfolio is to encourage students to demonstrate their math thinking. The state asks for at least seven pieces that display a student's understanding of a math problem, how he or she approached the task, what choices were made, and any findings, observations, or connections that the child reached along the way. Cross and the students are aware that the portfolios will be judged on how effectively the students use mathematical vocabulary, notation, and graphic representations.
The work is a far cry from the math drill sheets most elementary students dutifully fill out. Like a vast majority of Vermont teachers surveyed by the RAND Corp., which is acting as an independent evaluator of the program, Cross says she devotes substantially more classroom time to problem solving, estimation, patterns, and relationships in math because of the portfolio project.
For example, the “Trix” problem that a student named Karine picked as her “best piece” was unlike anything Cross had ever assigned before. After passing unopened boxes of the colorful cereal to groups of students, she asked them to brainstorm about what kinds of math questions they could ask about the cereal. Karine wondered how many red cereal bits were inside. Cross challenged Karine's group to find a way to estimate the number without counting each piece. Once the students came up with a plan, they could come to her for materials to test their ideas. Someone in the group noticed that there were 12 eight-ounce servings in the box. Another suggested filling a cup with eight ounces of Trix, counting the number of red pieces in the cup, and then multiplying the number by 12.
Each student wrote his or her own description of the activity and explained the group's thought processes, using words, graphs, and mathematical notation. (Because no more than two group projects are allowed in the portfolio, most of the class's problem-solving work is actually done independently.)
In Cross' class, problems such as this are known as “weird math” and are separate from lessons in computation. Cross mentions, with obvious admiration, that the other 4th grade teacher down the hall has been able to integrate the two by teaching computation in the context of problem solving. This coming year, Cross hopes to follow suit.
The changes in Cross' writing program as a result of the portfolio project are more subtle. Brattleboro has a long tradition of using process writing, so students are accustomed to writing, asking others to comment, rewriting, and proofreading. Even had she not changed her writing program, Cross' students would have had many examples of their writing to choose from for their portfolios. Only the state's decision to score for voice and tone has had an impact on her program. To make sure her students have a chance to demonstrate a strong voice, Cross has them write more poetry and persuasive letters.
Cross says she would consider changing her teaching even more if she could find the time. But time is one thing she doesn't have. The portfolio program, which takes an average of six hours a week to coordinate, was added to teachers' workloads without anything being taken away. For 4th grade teachers, this means, in addition to everything else, keeping portfolios for all of their students in both math and writing. For 8th grade math and writing teachers, it can mean keeping portfolios for as many as 120 students. This is a matter of some rancor among the state's 4th and 8th grade teachers, who carry the entire burden of the portfolio program with no additional pay.
The end of the year is the toughest time, teachers say. On this particular day in May, for example, Cross is running conferences with individual students, helping them organize their final portfolios. Jennifer, clad in shorts, T-shirt, and sneakers, sits on a stool swinging her feet. Cross pulls out a folder with about 25 math problems and assigns the first task: Jennifer is to choose seven pieces that represent her best work. Cross suggests making three piles: yes, no, and maybe.
Cross knows that it is important for the students to have a say in their portfolios, but she's also pressed for time. The conference is highly structured and too quick to be very thoughtful. “You must pick these two to start,” she says, without explanation. Then she starts through the stack of papers, commenting matter-of-factly as she hands each one to the girl: “This is really clear; at least put it in the maybe pile. This one you didn't get at all; put it in the no pile.”
Though Cross takes a dominant role in the selection process, she doesn't tinker with the students' work. “I really believe that the portfolio should be as pure as it can be, a direct reflection of the children's work,” she says.
But Cross worries that some teachers don't share her conviction. “I imagine that in some places in the state teachers feel incredible pressure to have their class and district look good,” she says. These teachers, she fears, must be sorely tempted to make heavy-handed corrections. And if they give into that temptation? “In that case, what does a portfolio really measure,” she asks, “a student's skills or the degree to which a teacher interferes with the student's work?”
Researchers at the RAND Corp. share Cross' concern about the data—but on a different level. They wonder if it is possible for teachers to agree on scores for such wide collections of work. RAND looked at the scores assigned to portfolios during the first year of full implementation. Each portfolio was rated by two teachers, and researchers measured the degree of agreement. By most standards, the level of agreement on the portfolio scores was low. In math, teachers rated a portfolio the same about 60 percent of the time; agreement in writing was slightly lower.
To those who want to use the portfolios to monitor and compare schools, this is cause for grave concern. “If you are not rating reliably, you are not rating,” RAND researcher Daniel Koretz told Education Week. “You can't measure anything unless you measure it reliably.”
The RAND findings did not weaken Mills' determination to provide the legislature and taxpayers with information on the state of Vermont's schools, but it did compel him to change course somewhat. While the state strives to train teachers to score portfolios more reliably, it will depend on other means of assessment for its comparative data. This year, for example, all the 4th and 8th graders in the state will have to take a uniform writing test and a math test that includes multiple choice questions. And to compare “supervisory units,” or clusters of districts, the state department of education is collecting a random sample of portfolios, which will be scored by a small group of highly trained teachers.
During class today, Cross' students ask whose writing portfolios are going to the state. Only Mandy's, Cross tells them. Some of the children gasp. One mutters under his breath, “And she's the dumbest.”
Cross shares their worry. Of the four portfolios requested from her class, two are special education students' and two are average students'. Eight portfolios total will be sent from Brattleboro Academy and 16 total from their district, which serves more than 150 kids. Her fear is that the sample, which seems to draw heavily from low-ability students, will misrepresent her school. (The wonderful writing in Henry Tucker's portfolio, for example, will never be seen by state scorers because his was not selected in the random process.)
At one of the portfolio project's first teacher training sessions two years ago, 4th grade teacher Angelo Dorta had to eat his words. Dorta had been one of the gang of seven on Hewitt's writing portfolio committee. Most of the committee members had wanted students to choose the best piece out of their portfolio and write a letter explaining why they chose the piece and what it showed about their writing abilities.
Letter writing is a fine idea for 8th graders, Dorta had agreed. But 4th graders, he argued adamantly but unsuccessfully, are not developmentally ready to write about the writing process; they are not capable of that kind of metacognition.
It was at the training session that Dorta discovered how wrong he had been. After a day of studying portfolios from other schools, he approached Hewitt and said: “The best writing I'm seeing in the 4th grade folders is the writing they have done about their best piece. It is fascinating.”
To Hewitt, it is this kind of exchange that gives him hope that the portfolio project can fuel real change. The key, he says, is getting teachers to learn from each other. “Portfolios essentially give teachers the opportunity to peer over each other's shoulders into classrooms that are not their own,” he says. “They can better imagine what their students might be capable of.”
Michele Cross did a lot of peering into other classrooms during the early portfolio training sessions. She swapped math problems with teachers, and, together, they critiqued assignments to see if they really were giving students a chance to demonstrate their math and writing abilities.
But these days, this kind of sharing and discussion is being cut short at training sessions around the state. Where the sessions used to be tailored to the needs of individual districts and heavily focused on classroom practice, they are now standardized for the primary purpose of increasing “interrater reliability.” Since the RAND report, the state has been taking the reliability issue very seriously—to the exclusion of all else, many teachers believe.
Scoring has been a sore subject for teachers since the beginning of the project. “The first year, it was war between the department of education and the teachers,” Cross remembers. “Teachers said, `This is a wonderful tool in the classroom.' The state said, `Yes, but we are going to give everybody scores and compare schools.' That is not what the teachers wanted to hear at all.”
Cross and others are now resigned to the scoring. “After two years of doing this, we know that this is the way it has to be,” she says. “We don't fight as hard about it anymore.”
It is now the day after her portfolio conference with Jennifer, and Cross is attending a training session at the Brattleboro Quality Inn, in an area that has none of the town's charm and all of its fast-food restaurants. Seated at a long white table in a conference room, Cross rushes to finish scoring the five portfolios that she was asked to bring to the session. An evening meeting last night prevented Cross from finding even the 20 minutes it takes to score one portfolio.
The session is as highly structured as her conference with Jennifer—and for the same reason; the participants are under great pressure to cover a lot of ground in a short time. First, the 15 4th grade teachers in attendance are given time to read and score a sample portfolio entry provided by the state. Then, regional trainer Deborah Cory reads the scores the state has given that entry for “calibration” purposes. Bewildered gasps escape from the educators. One teacher, who evidently gave the entry very different scores, stands up in exasperation and declares, “I'm leaving.”
But she doesn't leave; she sits back down, and the group gets on with its business. “Where is the math language?” one teacher asks Cory. He is referring to one of the criteria that the teachers have to judge: how effectively a student uses math vocabulary, equations, and notation. “For 4th graders, `calendar' and `rectangle' constitute using math language accurately and appropriately,” Cory explains. “That would constitute a score of three.”
Later, when the teachers swap their students' portfolios with others, more gray areas emerge. “Is the term `factors' considered sophisticated or standard terminology for 4th graders?” one asks.
“If a teacher asks a student to connect a problem or solution to something in the real world, would a student still get credit for making an observation?” queries another.
And so goes the day: teachers asking specific questions, trying to follow and internalize the state's reasoning. Their efforts, while not enthusiastic, seem sincere.
But toward the end of the afternoon, resentment resurfaces.
The teachers score another portfolio provided by the state. Almost all the teachers decide that the portfolio demonstrates good math representation and give it a three on that criteria. But the state had given it a one, meaning that the students hadn't used any graphs, tables, charts, models, diagrams, or drawings to communicate the solution. When pressed, Cory explains that what the teachers saw as a chart in the portfolio, the state decided was nothing more than an organized list because the headings were not labeled. The teachers don't argue, but one mutters something about “Big Brother” under her breath.
A bearded man asks a question burning in everyone's mind: “What if all the teachers score something a three and the state scores it a two or one?”
Cory explains calmly that she will collect the scoring sheets and that the state will look for those kinds of discrepancies.
The teacher's irritation is audible as he voices another concern, “I have said at other meetings that the state is unfairly penalizing students who have the right answer but don't make additional observations or connect a problem to the real world.”
Another teacher agrees: “It's not developmentally appropriate for 4th graders to make that connection.”
Still another pipes in: “There isn't going to be improvement in this area in grade 4 until they start doing problem solving in earlier grades. We can't do it alone. We are the only ones teaching problem solving in math.”
“We are also not going to show any improvement if we are all over the place in scoring,” one teacher says. “We could argue some of this stuff all day long and not come to agreement.”
“Scoring does not benefit the kids,” another laments. “What good does it do them for their teachers to be out for two days [learning to score]?”
“Maybe we should go to the state; our complaints seem to fall on deaf ears,” someone complains, less a battle cry than a resigned grievance.
The participants are not angry with Cory. She, too, is a teacher, and they realize that the session has helped clarify the scoring criteria and given them a better idea of what they should expect from their students. But they feel trapped in the minutiae of scoring. They don't believe that it is the most important aspect of the portfolio, and they certainly don't feel confident as scorers.
Still, most recognize that for all its pitfalls as an assessment tool, the portfolio beats standardized tests because it is more in line with real teaching and learning. “Many teachers come in here kicking and screaming,” Cross says. “But at least portfolios are educationally sound.”
And Cross gives the state some credit for its patience. “This is not a fast process,” she acknowledges. “This is not something you buy in a package, pass to teachers, and implement in a year.”
The next day Cross' students know something is up when she asks them to move their desks, usually clustered in groups of four or five, into straight rows facing forward. Their worries are not allayed when she hands out official test booklets and says, “It's just another opportunity to write.”
But it is more than that, and the students know it. With teachers not able to agree on scores for portfolios, the department of education decided it needed another measure of the students' progress. Part of the solution, at least for now, is to give the 4th and 8th graders uniform tests in both writing and mathematics. For both subjects, the task and conditions are standardized, and the answer booklets will be sent to outside scorers.
Though the children are accustomed to writing—Cross has them write at least 15 lines every day—they are agitated, fiddling with their pencils and asking questions in a panic without really listening to the answers. Cross calls it “the freakout syndrome,” and she says it plagues her students whenever a standardized test is at hand.
Five children, eager to get writing, start before Cross has finished answering questions. Because it's a timed test, the teacher has to collect their work and have them start over with the other students. One girl, who was obviously pleased with her first beginning, seems visibly upset. “I'm not doing it,” she protests.
A timer on Cross' desk ticks off three 15 minute segments, so the students can pace themselves. Most work steadily, bent over draft paper and the answer sheet as an oscillating fan pushes hot air back and forth over their heads.
Halfway through the test, Henry Tucker, the boy who wrote the story about the Holocaust, calls the teacher over. He tells Cross that he likes what he's written for a beginning and has an idea for the end, but he is stuck in the middle. He obviously wants to talk about the piece, not because he wants the teacher to tell him what to write but because he is accustomed to seeking honest comments from others. Even after she tells him that she really can't help him, he asks, “Please, just read it.” He has written prolifically, but, as the last 15-minute segment winds down, his face becomes pinched and red; he holds his forehead tight in his hand.
Meanwhile, in the front row, a girl trying hurriedly to copy her first draft onto the answer booklet realizes that it's illegible. In her frustration, tears stream down her face. Cross kneels next to her, talking softly to calm her down, and promises to let her finish copying after recess.
These 4th graders have already taken the math problem-solving part of the uniform test. Tension was high then, but the worst is yet to come. Soon, they'll be given a 40-question multiple-choice test. “Imagine the sweating, yelling, and gnashing of teeth—and that's just me,” Cross says.
Cross has mixed feelings about the tests. Even though the time constraints put undue pressure on the students, she admits that the writing prompt was a reasonable assignment and that the problem-solving component of the math test was similar to the kind of work students do in her class every day. But the standardized multiple-choice test is another matter. She thinks it must have been a purely political decision. “Why else, if they were committed to the portfolio, would they have this?” she asks. Then she answers her own question: The country has a long tradition of comparing students, and the public, unfortunately, has come to trust test scores.
The fear among proponents of portfolios is that a headlong rush to use them to compare schools will undermine their most powerful benefit: demonstrating, for the purpose of guiding further learning, what a student can and cannot do. They also argue that it will jeopardize the long-term survival of portfolios.
Donald Graves doesn't believe portfolios will ever disappear from the educational landscape; too many teachers left to their own devices would continue to use them in the classroom, mandated or not, scored or not. But he, like others, worries that if portfolios are forced—like square pegs into round holes—to perform the function of standardized tests, they will lose their instructional benefits. Or they will simply fail to give the simple numbers that people are accustomed to and be summarily tossed aside. “Without careful exploration,” Graves says, “portfolio use is doomed to failure. They will be tried too quickly, found wanting, and be just as quickly abandoned.”
Vermont teacher trainer Rosenblum believes that the portfolio project has set up a tension that must be resolved. “We are definitely serving two masters,” she says. “I think that most teachers serve the instructional master first, and the policymakers serve the data master.”
The hope is that, with time, schools will be able to strike a balance between using portfolios as an instructional tool and as a tool for public accountability.
But until then, the policymakers are calling the shots. “We realize that we need to figure this out sooner rather than later,” Hewitt says. “Eventually, someone is going to lose patience and go back to the bubble test if we can't give them that much desired data.
“So,” he says, “they will have their data.”
Vol. 05, Issue 01, Pages 36-41