One way to teach them all

As a veteran teacher in New York City, Arthur Goldstein has seen many versions of the one right way to teach come down from on high.

One year, a woman came and explained to us that portfolios were going to revolutionize schools. The kids would do work, it would all be placed in portfolios, and the portfolios would be available, right there in the classroom, for anyone who needed to see them. Anytime you wanted to check the progress of any kids, you could simply look in their portfolios, and there it would be. What more could anyone ask?

The following year, the same woman came around and raved about cooperative learning. The students would work in groups and help one another. Every day would be a marathon of learning. A teacher asked whether this involved portfolios. “Portfolios are out,” the woman responded curtly.

Several months later, some Very Important People came to my classroom and noticed my kids were sharing books. They complimented me profusely on my use of cooperative learning, and I decided it was best to thank them without explaining why I’d embraced this particular methodology. Actually, I only had 15 books for my 34 kids and was doing the best I could under the circumstances.

Goldstein thinks “teachers have different voices, just as writers have different voices.” What works for one teacher may not work for another with a different personality or  different talents. “Why can’t we take a little bit from here, a little bit from there, find out what works for us, and then use it?”

Portfolio assessment inflates scores

Alternatives to Virginia’s state exam, such as assessing portfolios of students’ work, are proliferating, reports the Washington Post. The pass rate is soaring. Are the alternative assessments too easy?

The Virginia Grade Level Alternative, like the multiple-choice test, assesses students’ understanding of the state academic standards. Teachers document learning throughout the year in a binder of class work, including worksheets, quizzes and writing samples. Some special education students and non-native speakers in early stages of learning English are eligible for the portfolio, but final decisions are made by committees of educators and often parents.

Lynbrook Elementary was a low-performing school when all students took Virginia’s challenging Standards of Learning exam. No more.

Since 2007, Lynbrook’s reading passing rate for students learning English shot from 52 to 94 percent. Among special education students, the rate went from 34 to 100 percent. At the same time, the number of portfolios increased from a handful to more than 100, including nearly half of the English learners and 78 percent of students with disabilities. All passed. The school had more than 460 students last year.

In Fairfax County last year, “students tested with portfolios outperformed classmates who took multiple-choice tests.” In more than a dozen schools, students with disabilities outscored non-disabled students. Students with poor English fluency outscored native-language speakers in reading.

Last year, 100 percent of the portfolios at Weyanoke received passing scores. That does not mean the students who took them are the school’s top performers, (teacher Candy) Kwiecinski said; it means they all learned the curriculum.

Apparently, the weaker students learned more than the strong students. So much for accountability.

Portfolios replace tests for more kids

Despite the high cost of grading, Virginia is letting more students submit portfolios of their work rather than pass tests, reports the Washington Post. At first, only students with serious cognitive disabilities could bypass the state test, but now Virginia allows portfolios to evaluate “students with learning disabilities or beginning English skills.”

. . . Pass rates for portfolio tests are relatively high, which helps educators meet academic benchmarks but raises questions about the tests’ value in rating schools.

Teachers spend hours assembling each students’ portfolio, which shows work throughout the school year. Then other teachers must be hired to evaluate the work.

Parents of special education students often say the portfolio gives a more accurate picture of their child’s progress. However, some think grading is too easy.

Andrea Rosenthal of Oak Hill, the mother of a Fairfax special education student, said high pass rates on portfolio tests are often misleading because many children who score well on them are far below grade level on other measures. “It benefits the state, not the child, to say they are at grade level when they are not,” Rosenthal said

That is, it’s easier to meet No Child Left Behind’s requirements for educating disabled students and English Learners if they’re judged subjectively.