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Performance-Based Assessment Debate

Given the opposition to the use of standardized tests to evaluate student learning, it was inevitable that performance-based assessment would move to center stage.  Nowhere is the change more appropriate than in Kentucky, which was the first state to adopt the Common Core ("In Kentucky, Moving Beyond Dependence On Tests," NPR, Jun. 1).

Although Kentucky believes the standards are worthwhile, it felt that standardized tests were not the best way to measure outcomes.   Accordingly, the 1,700-student Danville school district tried to convince the Kentucky Legislature to allow it to skip the tests. So far, it has been unsuccessful.

I think it's important to put the issue into historical context.  In Sept. 1990, 138 schools in Vermont began using student portfolios as the primary basis for assessment ("Vermont Gauges Learning by What's in Portfolio," The New York Times, Apr. 24, 1991). The move had the support of the National Alliance of Business and the National Governors Association.  Richard Mills, then-Vermont's Education Commissioner, gave the policy the green light.

But when 40 alternative high schools in New York City in Jan. 2000 requested an extension of the five-year waiver that permitted them to use year-end projects in place of the new English Regents exam required for graduation, Mills, who had moved on to become New York State Education Commissioner, said no ("Education's Chief Says Regents Test Won't Be Waived," The New York Times, Jan. 27, 2000).

The primary objection to the use of portfolios and their variants rests on the claim that they are too prone to subjective grading.  There is truth to this, just as there is truth to subjectivity in reviewing movies.  Readers of Rotten Tomatoes know that the same film regularly garners a wide range of opinions by professional movie critics.  Yet we accept such differerences because films are creative products.  By the same token, don't portfolios fall into the same category?  After all, we give so much lip service to the importance of developing creativity and independent thinking in students.  It seems to me that portfolios are an appropriate way of achieving both goals.

But I hasten to emphasize the need for a clear rubric that evaluators can use and the requirement that teachers who have not taught the students judge the work. I also recommend that additional feedback come from experts in the community.  I realize that standardized tests can be scored more quickly, more cheaply and more objectively than performance-based products.  But I wonder if we are not undermining our efforts to produce graduates who are equipped for the demands of a rapidly changing world by relying so heavily on them.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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