Substituting portfolios for conventional tests to assess students with special needs is hardly a new practice. But when "special needs" takes on an ever-expanding definition, Gadfly begins to wonder: Is this really about making schools look more effective than they actually are? Though only a small fraction of the total tests given in the state, the number of portfolio assessments given in Virginia ballooned to more than 30,000 in 2007-08 from 15,400 in 2006-07--and portfolio passing rates ballooned along with it. In Fairfax County, for example, of youngsters evaluated by portfolios in 2007-08, 94 percent passed in reading and 84 percent in math, whereas in 2006-07, only 79 percent passed in reading and 70 percent in math. At fault, it seems, for this increase in alternatively-tested students is an ever-expanding list of qualifying "disabilities" (vague disorders like "information processing disability" now reside alongside Down Syndrome), making it much easier to escape traditional testing requirements; of course, a larger percentage of higher-functioning portfolio-tested students might also account, in part, for the increase in passing rates, too. But the combination of much lower passing rates on traditional assessments and the fact that portfolios remain a dubious measure of student achievement leave us wondering if this is just another ploy to pad achievement rates. As one parent aptly remarked, "It benefits the state, not the child, to say they are at grade level when they are not." Indeed. Let's hope VA gives this slippery portfolio slope some traction pronto.
"Alternative Testing on the Rise: Va. Expands Use of ‘Portfolio' to Measure Learning of Challenged Students," by Michael Alison Chandler, The Washington Post, June 8, 2009