Portfolio exams–wave of the future or big cop-out?

Jay Matthews:

Today’s ed page has a startling story by my colleague Michael Alison Chandler on the rapid spread—and resulting score inflation—of portfolio exams in Virginia. These are collections of classwork of students with learning disabilities or insufficient English. They substitute for the usual state multiple choice tests in assessing those students’ progress, and the progress of their school. At one Fairfax County elementary school, Chandler reports, the reading passing rate for English learners has gone from 52 to 94 percent and for special education students 34 to 100 percent in the two years this system has been in place. Sound fishy to you? It does to me, but I think it is going to force some interesting and likely beneficial changes.
I am NOT saying the teachers who compile their students’ portfolios and the educators (who don’t usually know the students) who grade them are trying to deceive us. I am sure they are doing their best to be fair and accurate. But it is difficult for empathetic human beings like educators to resist the temptation to err on the side of generosity when assessing students, particularly when we are talking about those struggling with disadvantages.
It is clear to me, and I suspect to most readers, that this system inflates achievement scores. Of course, so has the assessment system we have been using in schools since the beginning of public education—teachers grading their own students’ work. We seem to have prospered as a nation despite giving many struggling students a break on their report cards. I don’t think portfolios used in this limited way are going to ruin the effort to set strong national standards, but I think it is going to give a big push to the idea of introducing independent inspectors to assess the effectiveness of schools and teachers.