An Alternative to Standardized Testing? Portfolio Assessment by Russ Walsh
One sure sign that the Opt Out Movement is having an impact is the recent spate of increasingly hysterical defenses of the test from education reform advocates. When I responded to a typical anti-opt out piece in the reform minded Education Post, stating the obvious – that the tests were biased against the poor and minorities, a featured Education Post blogger called me “immoral and classist.” So much for the Education Post’s goal of a “better conversation.”
While opt out is having an impact, states with corporate education reform friendly governors are plowing ahead with plans to make standardized tests like PARRC and SBAC a graduation requirement. Most recently, New Jersey made passing the PARCC test mandatory for students starting in 2021. This is wrongheaded in the extreme and is likely to result in chaos in New Jersey in a few years, as thousands of students miss the test’s arbitrary “cut score” and appeal to the NJ Department of Education seeking their diploma.
I do think it is fair of reformers to ask those of us opposed to high stakes standardized testing to offer an alternative. If high stakes standardized tests are poor measures of student knowledge, teacher effectiveness and school performance, what is a better way to assess these things? If high stakes standardized tests narrow the curriculum and reduce weeks of instructional time to test prep work, what is an alternative that broadens the curriculum and encourages genuine learning activities? The answer is portfolio assessment.
Portfolio assessment is an authentic assessment that has the potential, not only to provide useful information on student, teacher and school performance, but that can also encourage genuine learning activities in the classroom and the broadening of the curriculum.
In New Jersey, portfolio assessment has been suggested as an alternative for students who fail the PARCC test. I would argue all New Jersey students would be better off if we just skipped the test altogether and went straight to the portfolio.
Here is how it could work.
A series of authentic assessments for each student could be gathered in a portfolio. Just as an artist, photographer or actor prepares a portfolio of work to show to prospective employers or clients, so too can a student, with the guidance of the teacher, prepare a portfolio of work that reveals learning accomplishments throughout a high school career. This portfolio documentation provides a much richer picture of the student’s learning for the teacher, the student, the parents and the state.
A teacher’s evaluation, too, could best be accomplished through a portfolio. A teacher’s portfolio might contain sample lesson plans, samples of student work, samples of assessments given to students, copies of observations, documentation of student learning, documentation of improved practice based on feedback from observations, documentation of professional development, samples of parent communication, student surveys and more. As with a student portfolio, the teacher portfolio gives a richer, more complete picture of the performance of the teacher than any standardized test could provide. A portfolio could form the basis of a genuine conversation between teacher and supervisor aimed at improved performance.
Finally, a school’s performance could also be best thought of as a portfolio providing evidence of meeting students’ needs. The school’s portfolio would include standardized test scores (given once every 3 or 4 years), but would also include reports on program, evidence of a rich and varied curriculum, documentation of meeting the needs of all children, documentation of efforts to invite parent participation in the life of the school, reports on hiring and evaluation processes and more.
Authentic assessments are time consuming and influenced by human factors that statistics cannot always control for. They are also much more valuable as tools for guiding decision making and for informing the public than are the quick, fuzzy snapshots provided by standardized tests.
Portions of this post were adapted from my new book, A Parent’s Guide to Public Education in the 21st Century: Navigating Education Reform to Get the Best Education for Your Child.
A Parent’s Guide to Public Education in the 21st Century: Navigating Education Reform to Get the Best Education for My Child
“When a parent walks their kindergartener through a schoolhouse door for the first time, their heart goes with them. They want to feel secure that they are entrusting their child to a learning environment in which they will thrive. As they listen to sensational reports about ‘failing schools’, it is no wonder that many parents feel doubt. That is why Russ Walsh’sParent’s Guide is a must read for any parent who is trying to make the best educational decision for their children. It is a clear, thoughtful response that will give parents wisdom, confidence and ease. Walsh is not only a professional, life-long educator, he is a beautiful writer whose style is thoughtful, clear and easy to read. A Parent’s Guide is the best guide for anyone who cares about public schools.” – Carol Corbett Burris, Executive Director of the Network for Public Education.
This is the book we’ve needed. When you contemplate the field of schools and school reform, you can feel as if you just walked in on a complicated, epic historical film two hours into the run time. What Walsh provides here is a clear, concise, plain-English guide to the various issues and viewpoints involved in the public education landscape these days, helping you sort out the baloney from the useful information. This is the perfect book for someone who wants to understand what’s going on, but isn’t sure where to start. And for someone who already knows a lot about what’s going on with “education reform,” this work helps fit all the little pieces into a bigger picture. Highly recommended. – Amazon
“A Parent’s Guide to Education in the 21st Century isn’t just for parents. It’s for anyone who wants to understand the “reform” agenda and what it has done to American public education. Call it “reform” 101. Walsh clearly outlines the ways that the “reform” movement has damaged the nation’s public education system and harmed the education of children. The book begins with a Bill of Rights for School Children…which should be posted in every public school in the nation. For teachers, he identifies best practices. For parents, he describes what a good school and good instruction ought to look like. He includes informative chapters on standardized tests, the privatization of public education, and the Common Core. A must read.” – Amazon
What is a parent to make of the current narrative about public education in the United States? We hear that our public schools are mediocre at best and dysfunctional and unsafe at worst. We hear politicians and pundits arguing that the country will fall behind economic competitors like China and Japan, if our schools do not improve. We hear education reformers, well-funded by corporate lions like Bill Gates and the Walton family, suggesting a smorgasbord of solutions from school choice to more rigorous standards and from increased standardized tests to test-based teacher accountability.
What is education reform and how will it impact schools, children and parents? What are charter schools and should I send my child to one? What is the impact of standardized testing on my child? Should I opt my child out of standardized testing? How can I make sure my child gets a good teacher? What does good reading and writing instruction look like? How should technology be used in the schools and at home?
A Parent’s Guide to Public Education in the 21st Century is written to answer these questions and help today’s parents sort through the weeds of educational reform to make informed decisions designed to get the best possible education for their children. The book starts from the point of view that public education is a vital institution, central to our democracy and economic independence, and then suggests ways that parents can not only get the best of education for their own children, but also support policies that will make the institution of public education stronger for future generations. Paperback book release available for purchase on Amazon and Barnes and Noble. More retailers coming soon. Ebook available April 19, 2016.