Monday, May 23, 2005

Accountability and Portfolios

I am posting this message that did not get sent to the AAHE eportfolio listserv before it was shut down. I was responding to this message sent by Trent Batson from Rhode Island:
... My sense of the eportfolio phenomenon in the US is that the assessment/accountability end of the spectrum is where most of the money is right now. My own hope from the push toward assessment-management is that these systems will get eportfolios in place on many campuses and then other uses will be discovered
Trent, I agree with your statement that e-portfolios are being adopted because of the assessment/accountability needs of institutions. The challenge with that scenario is that we are turning off a lot of students (and perhaps also faculty) in the process because of high stakes accountability. Perhaps formal education is validating Lee Shulman's assertion that one of the five dangers of portfolios is "perversion"! As he says in Nona Lyons' book (1998) With Portfolio in Hand,
If portfolios are going to be used, whether at the state level in Vermont or California, or at the national level by the National Board, as a form of high stakes assessment, why will portfolios be more resistant to perversion than all other forms of assessment have been? And if one of the requirements in these cases is that you develop a sufficiently objective scoring system so you can fairly compare people with one another, will your scoring system end up objectifying what's in the portfolio to the point where the portfolio will be nothing but a very, very cumbersome multiple choice test? (p. 35)
At the IRA conference earlier this month, I got a round of applause for the statement, "High stakes accountability is killing portfolios for learning." In the drive to use portfolios as assessment OF learning, we are in danger of losing the power of portfolios to support reflection and assessment FOR learning. I'm starting to collect stories about student rebellion against this approach, like the college student in a midwest university who ran for student body president on a platform to get rid of the campus-wide assessment portfolio. Then, there are high school students in the Pacific Northwest who built a bonfire and burned their mandatory graduation paper-based portfolios (eSchool news quoted me on this story as the opening of their article about the TaskStream research project.... Of course they didn't quote me on the other story about the high school student who offered a $50 reward to recover her lost writing portfolio.) I tell both of those stories in more detail in the TaskStream White Paper.

I also think purpose is inextricably linked with process (per Activity Theory) and the tools tend to be developed to support the primary purpose. In my incomplete survey of different online tools to construct e-portfolios, it was obvious to me that the tools tend to favor one approach over the other. Those tools that purport to be more "assessment management systems" tend to provide an institution-focused structure that makes it much easier to "score" but more difficult for the learner to tell their own story of their learning. There were some systems that I tried where I could not create the portfolio that I wanted... I was forced to use a pre-set template. For me, the bottom line is "ownership" - and I was pleased at the ePortfolio conference in Vancouver, B.C. last month where the general consensus of the participants and presenters was that learners owned their own portfolios. Based on that statement, the tools should support that ownership in every way possible. I am finding that those systems based on an online database to capture assessment data provide far less creativity in appearance and organization than other tools. So I am making a plea to educational institutions for balance in the purposes for implementing e-portfolios, and to the software developers for more creativity and flexibility in the presentation tools.

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