Judge Students' Performance by Their "Greatest Hits Collection," Say Some Educators
By Linda Blackford

(ANS) When Kathryn Brown opened her rejection letter from Ohio University's E.W. Scripps School of journalism, she was shocked and angry.

After all, when she wasn't making straight A's at Capital High School in Charleston, W.Va., Brown anchored the school's cable news show, edited the yearbook and wrote news stories for the school paper. But, as OU officials informed her, Brown didn't score high enough on the math section of the standardized American College Test to get into the journalism school.

Brown's high school journalism teacher, Jo Blackwood, suggested Brown turn in the portfolio of her work she had compiled for Blackwood's class. Brown sent Ohio a collection of writing, news stories and a videotape of her TV news show.

A few weeks later, Ohio accepted Brown as one of its 12 out-of-state freshmen in the journalism school.

"I think the portfolio worked because they could see for themselves if I could write or if I had something to say," Brown said. "I never did well on standardized tests."

Brown's experience touches the center of a growing national debate about how to measure and improve student performance. Increasing numbers of educators believe that standardized tests alone cannot effectively measure what students know. They argue for other ways to measure skills students need in the real world.

Brown's approach to proving her academic worth -- handing over a portfolio of her best work -- is one example. Portfolios could be called a student's greatest hits collection. A writing portfolio for a class or semester, for example, could contain a first-person narrative, a piece of fiction, an essay or a term paper.

This way, teachers say, students write more. And portfolios, they add, also encourage students to reflect on the actual quality of their work, rather than merely worrying about the grade marked on it. In turn, teachers can use portfolios to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of their courses.

Today, American students are mainly judged by multiple-choice, standardized tests, although many critics, like the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, believe they discriminate against poor and minority students.

Portfolios were developed as a way to avoid the pitfalls of standardized tests. They allow for different kinds of intelligence and various learning speeds. Kathryn Brown's portfolio, for example, showed she could succeed at a competitive journalism school without being a math whiz.

For the past seven years, the Pittsburgh city schools have taken part in a University of Pittsburgh program called Arts Propel, a writing portfolio program in the high schools funded by the Rockefeller Foundation.

"I'm amazed at what I don't get from standardized tests, and what very little I do get," said Jerry Halpern, a ninth and 10th grade English teacher at Langley High School in Pittsburgh. "Portfolios have helped my students get interested in their own work and improved their writing."

Promoters of the portfolio approach argue that creating the portfolio is itself a learning experience that no multiple-choice test can offer.

"The portfolio gives students the opportunity to reflect on their own work, make judgments and have to validate those judgments," said JoAnne Eresh, a resident fellow at Learning Research and Development Center at the University of Pittsburgh.

To assess the Propel program, Eresh and her colleagues pluck a random sample of 1,500 portfolios. "We find that with the portfolios, students' writing is getting better -- slowly."

Of course, like any new educational movement, portfolios have stirred up their share of controversy.

In Kentucky, the state's education department is putting a standardized test back into its yearly statewide assessments. Kentucky started writing and math portfolios programs in fourth, eighth and 12th grades when the Kentucky Educational Reform Act overhauled the state's entire public education system in 1991.

The renewed testing program was a response to parents' concern that they didn't know how their children's basic skills compared with those of other children in the country, said Starr Lewis, director of the Kentucky Writing Program.

Although portfolios are now being used extensively in New York and Iowa, Vermont is the only state other than Kentucky with a statewide pilot program using portfolios.

Many Vermont parents were uncomfortable when they saw their first math portfolios, said Carol Amico of the state's education department.

"Before, they could see simple worksheets and a specific number of answers their children got right," she said. "Now when they open up the portfolios, parents see what we call math problem-solving. Kids are given very complex problems, and they write about their thinking in solving the problems.

"But usually, when they really go through their child's portfolio in depth, they're positive toward the program," Amico said.

Critics acknowledge that portfolios require more writing, but more writing, they say, doesn't necessarily mean basic skills are being drilled into kids well enough.

"I see portfolios as a way to get around the idea that our children have to perform on assessments and basic skills," said West Virginia schools Superintendent Hank Marockie. "The basic line is how well our children achieve on these competitive tests. We may not like that, but in the world in which we live that's very important."

Marockie also says portfolios might take up too much time for teachers, especially at the elementary level.

Nonetheless he believes portfolios could work well in high schools, if supplemented by standardized tests. Citing one practical benefit, he said: "A youngster could get a diploma and take a record of achievements to potential employers."

More colleges, meanwhile, are looking at high school portfolios, said Monty Neill, associate director of the Center for Fair & Open Testing in Cambridge, Mass., which supports replacing standardized tests with other assessments.

Colleges value portfolios, he said, because they "show the evidence of learning accumulated over time" compared with the standard college admission test.

Addressing concerns about whether portfolios lend themselves to objective scoring, Eresh and her colleagues in Pittsburgh are finding ways to assess each portfolio by a list of common criteria to make judging as objective as possible.

"We're at very delicate moment" in regard to the future of portfolio assessment, said Eresh. "We need to listen to the criticisms and concerns. If we don't, it will be another 20 years before we can try again."

Linda Blackford is an education reporter for the Charlestown Gazette in Charleston, W. Va.
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