By Mark Clayton, writer of The Christian Science Monitor
The Christian Science Monitor
In a basement room of the red-brick Mary Lyon Elementary School in Boston, Deborah Rooney is teaching first-graders to be archaeologists.
But instead of digging for fossils, Ariel, Larry, Marcus, and Ms. Rooney's 12 other students are learning to archive their art projects, math worksheets, and writing samples to create a portfolio of their best academic efforts.
"I don't keep number grades," Ms. Rooney says. So how do I assess this early in the year? I have to look at their portfolios. It's a huge help." Student portfolios have been popular for a century or more. But the old standby has been whittled into a state-of-the-art tool for "authentic assessment" - grading based on students' in-class work rather than on standardized tests. The idea caught on in the early 1990s as one way to assess children without the bias and artificial pressures some say are created by standardized testing. But Vermont, Kentucky, Michigan, and New Mexico are taking it further, using portfolio assessment - along with testing - as a central means of judging children's achievement. Massachusetts and New York also have large portfolio-assessment pilot programs. Iowa, Florida, and Texas and others have a smattering of schools and districts involved. "We needed a different kind of test - one that didn't just measure minimal standards," says Tom Bisson, spokesman for the Vermont Department of Education. "We wanted an assessment system that measures how well we can do, not how little. Portfolio assessment shows students that this is where you are - and this is the level you need to get to." But there have been disappointments. As the nation's leading portfolio assessment pioneer, Vermont was first to implement the system statewide. And there were once high hopes that portfolios would be the central, if not sole, means of assessing students. Yet the system's unexpectedly high cost in time and dollars, and public pressure to measure student and school performance against national standards, led to standardized testing's return last year - in addition to portfolios. Vermont's portfolio system has demonstrated its effectiveness in measuring student achievement, Mr. Bisson says. But not all are convinced. Soft and fuzzy "This is just one more of these soft assessments left over from the 1970s," says Peter Berger, an English teacher at the Weathersfield Middle School in Ascutney, Vt., a town of about 3,000. He opposes the system's "pseudo-objective scoring," charging that it provides no accurate measure of student performance since teachers' judgments are subjective. E.D. Hirsch, founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation in Charlottesville, Va., concurs. "Portfolios are fine for the classroom, absurdly unreliable for high-stakes testing," he says. In Vermont, for example, writing is measured in five "dimensions" - purpose; details; organization; voice; and mechanics, grammar, and usage. Each category is given one of four scores: extensively, frequently, sometimes, or rarely. The scores become a four-point scale - 1 to 4. The problem is that one teacher may say a student's writing has "explicit" details and so would rate it "extensively." But another teacher may see fewer details and give it a lower "frequently" rating. The Washington-based Rand Institute on Education and Training concluded portfolio assessment was a useful classroom teaching tool many teachers and students liked. But as an assessment tool, it is too subjective, it said. A 1994 Rand study of Vermont's first two years was blunt: "The Vermont portfolio program has been largely unsuccessful . …