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Not So Fast: Obama Won't 'Dump' NCLB Testing


Mike Petrilli at Flypaper gets overly excited about his breaking news and declares that the "Obama campaign wants to dump NCLB testing, use portfolios instead."

Before teachers and school districts and other test-skeptics start celebrating, that's not what I heard from the Obama campaign on today's Diane Rehm show.

Today's segment on the syndicated National Public Radio program based out of WAMU in Washington featured Petrilli, Washington, D.C., schools chief Michelle Rhee, USA Today reporter Greg Toppo, John McCain education adviser Lisa Graham Keegan, and Barack Obama spokeswoman Melody Barnes.

The panel got talking about NCLB, and specifically testing, and Barnes reiterated Obama's call to improve assessments.

Here's my own transcription of what she said (and you can listen to the full show here, with the portfolio discussion around minute 22): "We have to deploy and employ the proper kinds of assessments...portfolios for example and other forms of assessments that may be a little bit more expensive but they are allowing us to make sure children are getting the proper analytic kinds of tools." Asked to clarify what she means by portfolios, Barnes says: "we're talking about tests that require children to assess their entire year ... to put together through writing and through speaking...we're looking at language skills as well as writing skills to get a sense of how well they've learned their lessons."

My reading of this isn't that Obama wants to "dump" testing, but to reform it and include alternative ways of testing kids, such as portfolios.

Petrilli writes: "Portfolios? ... this was news." (He and Toppo also made that point on the air.)

Not so much. We've heard Obama's campaign talk about portfolios before, and in August, Obama himself at a campiagn event in Virginia said: "We should come up with teachers, what are the best ways to assess performance. You know, peer review, portfolios, or a mix of things that help us evaluate. And are we measuring progress during the course of a year." In November during one of his first big education policy speeches in New Hampshire, he held up one school district's use of "digital portfolios" as a model of how to reform assessments. And here, the American Prospect blog makes mention of Obama's support for student portfolios.

Now, we can certainly argue about the merits of portfolios, but I don't think there's any claim here that Obama wants to ditch testing altogether.


Perhaps Mike Petrilli is looking for points he can tendentiously stretch into things McCain can use.

Not only is the point not new from Obama, but the Miller-McKeon draft bill of late August 2007 included federal support for developing locally-based assessments, which could include portfolios, for use in accountability and instruction. Katie Haycock did scream (as Petrilli "predicts"), but more than 20 civil rights groups signed on to a letter supporting the use of performance assessments in a reauthorized ESEA.

Those who have studied the issue closely and looked at other nations understand it is indeed technically possible to include locally-based assessments and classroom evidence within a reporting system; technical problems can be overcome if a reasonable accountability design is employed. Despite Petrilli's waving the ideological flag of "subjectivity," nations with highly regarded educational systems and outcomes, such as Finland and New Zealand, rely on classroom based evidence. New Zealand also has a NAEP-like assessment, Finland doesn't even have that.

I would suggest that many who are willing to jump on the portfolio bandwagon will be eager to jump right back off again as soon as the train starts moving. What I believe many are looking for from portfolios is the ability of individual teachers and buildings to determine success based on their own understandings and interpretations. They might want to talk first to any special education teachers who are using collection of evidence for students with cognitive disabilities, or teachers from a few states/districts that have responsibly implemented performance indicators in a valid and reliable way. These are not simple evaluations, nor are they anything goes. There are, in fact advantages--in terms of being able to better evaluate application of knowledge and higher order thinking skills. I look for the first round to be met by extreme push-back, as teachers begin to realize that this type of evaluation is very time consuming, and that their students aren't learning these kinds of things very well.


I think you're being a bit unfair to teachers, who are in a better position than most to understand what portfolios entail. The greater danger is that portfolio initiatives will not include the kinds of support teachers need to carry them out.

I've used portfolios and they indeed are time consuming BUT very worthwhile.

My concern is that we politicians and other 'non educators' get into the mix of this issue and it becomes nothing more than another NCLB mess -- money making for lobbyists, making demands that are truly out of touch with reality...... you get the idea.


I have been a parent of school children for a couple of decades. During that time I encountered one school that was actually developing capacity to use portfolios. I think that they are no longer doing so. I would be interested if you are aware of any initiatives where portfolios are being used in a deliberate, valid and reliable way to assess student learning.

Again--the biggest full-scale example that I am aware of is with the Collection of Evidence used with students who have disabilities. I have not heard positives from teachers on this one. I have heard complaints about the need for documentation, the need to align to a standard, and the need to submit evidence to an outside evaluator--all key elements for portfolio systems used as broad-based (and meaningful)evaluation. In my state the first round was a disaster--most submissions were tossed as inadequate.

I have also seen portfolios used poorly--sort of a "pick your favorite work and keep it" or the overlooked writing portfolios that my own district is alleged to have in place for every student. NEVER at a conference or an IEP meeting has anyone ever brought out the writing portfolio as an example of writing proficiency or present level of performance--which tells me that to the extent they are actually maitained, it is merely a cursory piece of paperwork to be filed and forgotten.

As a GED teacher, I recall being trained on ways to keep portfolios "on the fly" to document student accomplishment in specified areas. It was a pretty simple system of putting sticky notes on examples as they were spotted in the course of day to day checks with students. Not very valid or reliable on a large scale--but nonetheless useful in the classroom. I have no sense that teachers are working in this way.

Every teacher that I have encountered in the course of my children's education relies on a grade book full of numbers to substantiate that so and so turned in so many papers (at X points each), received scores on tests, and earned extra credit. This is also not very valid or reliable--but it seems to be preferred. I don't see many examples of teachers who are seeking ways to evaluate LEARNING in a systematic (or non-systematic) way. A student who has a firm grasp on how to write a paragraph has a firm grasp on how to write a paragraph--full stop. It doesn't matter if they always did it a day or a week late, if they used red ink on yellow paper or if they wrote on the wrong topic. The other things may have importance for other reasons, but the question regarding what a student knows about writing a paragraph is not answered by them. Yet most teachers are deeply wedded to including them in a grade. So the bulk of evaluation (meaning grades) taking place in schools has little to do with actual evaluation of learning.

Teachers talk a lot about "one size doesn't fit all," yet most classroom teaching and evaluation is carried out as if this were so. Everyone takes the same test on Friday (despite the cries that "some of our kids are just poor test-takers") and gets the same homework packet. The grading scale is identical.

I rather suspect that the "support" teachers need to carry out a portfolio-based system is already available within schools and districts. In order to access it, however, we will have to give up some things--starting with our allegiance to grading systems that lump lots of junk into a letter and call it and indicator of either learning or knowledge.

Portfolios = "scrapbook keeping." Except for their long and justified use in art and business, where they ARE the evidence of a narrowly defined talent, use of portfolios for general education has a long track record of failure, as mentioned by some of the above commentators.

Usually the more experienced a teacher is, the more he/she realizes that conventional tests only measure a small portion of what we teach in our classes: honesty, work ethic, detail, pride and sense of accomplishment, actual intellectual joy and excitement,
genuine creativity, etc...all which are not tested but which are the basis of our Nobel Prizes and our quality of life.

NCLB, in its focus on testing, has actually promoted dishonesty and suppressed the fuller education listed above, as teachers become test-prep assemblyline workers. We need a presidential candidate who will work to rebuild the unique professionalism of American teachers. This would include returning the responsibility for education policy to the state and local governments, where policy and funding can remain linked, and where policy can match the unique students of various regions. [And before I am stereotyped as a state-rights conservative, note that I am a bleeding-heart liberal who works closely with comrades in China, where they have had teach-to-the-test for millenia, and no Nobel Prizes].

Many veteran teachers (especially secondary) have no presidential candidate to support because no candidate will kill NCLB. In my region, NCLB is THE leading reason for veteran teachers leaving teaching early, and for young college students diverting to non-teaching career tracks.

Scrapbook-keeping is no answer, and will likely drive more of our best teachers from the secondary classroom.

"Hear hear" to Mr. Schrock's observations re: NCLB's affects on veteran teachers. Why is this point not expressed more broadly, loudly, or convincingly, particularly by the teacher unions, who one would think would start with the teacher's experience first, and only support candidates who support teachers?

Like Mr. Schrock's district, ALL of the core teachers and department chairs in our district are taking early retirement when they can, weary of the constraints of NCLB. And Obama's plan is to add portfolio's to the tests? Is he nuts, or the NEA nuts for endorsing him?

I think the truth is Obama really doesn't care what he or his minions say on the topic of NCLB or K-12 education in general, because it makes no difference in his electability, and he doesn't really intend to change much that exists now. I just wish he had the honesty "Look, I really don't know how to improve education", or the unions had the courage to withhold their endorsement from someone who's expressed agenda hurts teachers.

How feasible is it to differentiate instruction and assessment in large classrooms? How feasible is it to differentiate instruction and assessment in classrooms with many atypical learners? I would like to see a well done study on teacher attrition before and after NCLB. And I am interested in the impact of differentiation (in my opinion, akin to eliminating special education, which appears to be happening--or has already happened) on teacher attrition.
Some may say that NCLB is not the culprit. I think it is.


You stated, "Teachers talk a lot about "one size doesn't fit all," yet most classroom teaching and evaluation is carried out as if this were so. Everyone takes the same test on Friday (despite the cries that "some of our kids are just poor test-takers") and gets the same homework packet. The grading scale is identical."

I agree completely with your assessment..

This, to me, is the elephant in the room with education reform. We've reformed the fiscal and the curriculum via standards (finally) and both of these changes have been long overdue and are most welcome. However, how can anyone involved in public education honestly claim we have reform when what's going on in our classrooms hasn't changed a lick? Beyond this predicament how does NCLB or any state department of education initiate pedagogical change?

It's like the mouse running endlessly in the spinning wheel and never getting anywhere - that's the conundrum in our schools today.

How do we get officials to even acknowledge this is a problem never mind come up with a pragmatic solution(s)? I'd like to see it in my lifetime but I won't be holding my breath.

As a parent of a kindergartener, I think that just about anything would be better than the current NCLB. My very bright, inquisitive five-year-old started off his kindergarten year excited and eager to learn. He loves science and can discuss it more thoroughly than many adults. He has found that his kindergarten teaches no science, they are completely focused on the NCLB "standards" to the exclusion of all else. It seems they are attempting to prepare children for the third-grade test, particularly language arts. This means reading and writing drills - most of the kids are bored and tired having day after day of this. I had hoped that kindergarten would focus primarily on instilling a love of learning in children, that school is a good place to be. NCLB has just about killed that.

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