Thursday, July 03, 2008

ISTE's Debate on Portfolios replacing Standardized Tests

Are Digital Portfolios a Realistic Alternative to Standardized Testing? ISTE’s magazine, Learning & Leading with Technology, wants your opinion. If you would like to share your thoughts on this topic, reply to Paul Wurster ( with a 25–50 word response by July 15. They are going to select 6–8 of the best comments they receive (attributing them with name, affiliation, city, and state) and publish them in the September/October issue of L&L. Not sure? Read the opinion of two other education professionals in the June/July edition of Point/Counterpoint in L&L on the Web.

The second paper referenced in my previous blog entry contained a reference to a January 2006 article by Kathleen Blake Yancey in Campus Technology: "An Exercise in Absence... Notes on the Past and Future of Digital Portfolios and Student Learning." She makes excellent points about student learning and engagement, the importance of reflection, and some cautions about portfolios:
In Portfolios in the Writing Classroom, Catherine Lucas identified three that are as relevant for digital portfolios as for print. First, she notes that portfolios can be "weakened by effect," asking "Can . . . [a] spirit of exploration remain central to the use of portfolios as they become more commonplace?" Second is the "failure of research": "The danger here is that those who cling to the illusion that only what can be measured or counted is worth doing will find the effects of portfolios . . . not only resistant to measurement but initially resistant even to definition." Given the scale that digital technology makes possible, her last caution, co-option by large-scale assessment, is perhaps the most prescient. She notes that if we are not careful, portfolios will become merely a new vehicle used to perform the old task, with the result that portfolios will become standardized-with common assignments and restrictive learning conditions. Should this happen, Lucas says, portfolios "will be just as likely as other standardized tests to limit learning by restricting curriculum to what is most easily and economically measured."
I am concerned that the positivists, those advocating the use of portfolios to replace standardized testing, are having a major impact on mandatory portfolio implementation in some states. It reminds me of Lee Shulman's [in Lyons (1998) With Portfolios in Hand] five dangers of portfolios, and specifically "perversion"
"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)
These articles (and the Shulman chapter) provide a more student-centered view of portfolios in education. At NECC by contrast, I talked with at least one technology vendor selling the "e-portfolio as standardized-test-replacement" and two classroom teachers who focused on a more student-centered approach to electronic portfolios (see my last NECC blog entry). I actually think we need both. Portfolios best support learning and formative assessment; standardized tests are best for institutional accountability. One can inform the other, but not replace it. When I write my 25-50 word response, I'll post it here in my blog.

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