In a basement room of the red-brick Mary Lyon Elementary
School in Boston, Deborah Rooney is teaching first-graders to be
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
"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
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
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 . …