By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 8, 2009
For eight days this spring, the Dulles Expo Center was transformed into an industrial grading complex. Boxes of tests were trucked in from schools, unloaded onto pallets into a warehouse and distributed to folding tables, where more than 1,500 Fairfax County teachers and staff worked with sharpened pencils and bar code scanners.
These were not multiple-choice tests that computers grade in seconds. They were thick "portfolio" tests representing a year's worth of student worksheets, quizzes and activities. The time-intensive evaluations have proliferated in recent years in response to the testing requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind law.
The District and many states, including Maryland and Virginia, use portfolios for students with serious cognitive disabilities. But Virginia has gone much further, expanding their use for students with learning disabilities or beginning English skills. Statewide, the number of math and reading portfolios submitted for such students nearly doubled in a year, from 15,400 in 2006-07 to more than 30,000 in 2007-08, and state officials predict another jump this school year.
Portfolios have long been used for in-depth evaluations because they can gauge more skills and higher-order thinking. Many educators say the year-long portfolios are a fairer way to measure what some students know than a one-day snapshot.
"We all learn differently," said Patrick K. Murphy, assistant superintendent for accountability in Fairfax schools and Arlington County's incoming superintendent. "We also have to recognize there are different ways people can show proficiency beyond a multiple-choice test."
Pass rates for portfolio tests are relatively high, which helps educators meet academic benchmarks but raises questions about the tests' value in rating schools. Portfolios also are expensive, costing Fairfax more than $500,000 for training and scoring this year alone, not to mention thousands of teacher hours spent compiling them.
The Virginia Grade Level Alternative, one of the state's portfolio tests, is available to some special education students from third to eighth grade who are learning grade-level material but struggle with multiple-choice tests. Someone with severe test anxiety or an information processing disability might be eligible, officials said. A student who might not correctly choose "Answer B: The third U.S. president" for a question about Thomas Jefferson but who could describe Monticello and a president who promoted ideals of freedom yet owned slaves could also be eligible.
The federal government approved Virginia's reading portfolio for beginning English learners in 2007 after protests by local school boards that the regular grade-level test was unfair. The 2002 federal law requires public schools to test students in reading and math in grades three through eight and once in high school. Schools that fail to reach target pass rates for all groups of students, including those with disabilities and English learners, face possible sanctions.
In Northern Virginia, portfolio testing has expanded significantly over two years. About 8,600 math and reading portfolios were compiled in Fairfax this school year, up from 5,900 in 2007-08 and 600 in 2006-07. Similar trends are playing out in Arlington and in Prince William and Loudoun counties.
Pass rates have increased in part because school systems have grown more comfortable compiling portfolios. Last school year, 94 percent of Fairfax students evaluated through portfolios passed in reading, and 84 percent passed in math, up from 79 percent and 70 percent, respectively, in 2006-07. Statewide, 87 percent of such students passed in reading and math last school year, up from 81 percent and 84 percent the year before.
Assembling the portfolios is a feat. Throughout the year, teachers compile worksheets, quizzes, audio or video clips and other examples of what students have learned. Third-grade math teachers documented that students understood 93 concepts, including some at first- or second-grade levels. One six-inch binder was filled with activity sheets that showed how a student used Goldfish crackers to count by twos and compared piles of cubes to demonstrate the concepts "more than" and "less than."
It took a full day for two scorers at the Expo Center to evaluate two or three third-grade math binders, with both independently scoring each piece of evidence. Scores were checked by "bubblers," who transferred the results onto Scantron sheets, which were then double-checked by "double-bubblers" before the binders were loaded back into boxes and shipped out again.
Many parents and teachers say portfolios have improved instruction and ensure that special education students are exposed to an entire year's curriculum, not a shortened version.
That is reassuring to Tia Marsili of Vienna, whose eighth-grade daughter has Down syndrome. "If you cannot show me what you have been doing," she said, "I'm afraid she has not learned the content."
Leonard Bumbaca, president of the Fairfax Education Association, said portfolios are also better in evaluating a teacher's effectiveness than a standardized test. But he warned that the process is "overloading teachers." Some teachers are also feeling pressure to use portfolios more often to achieve high pass rates, Bumbaca said. "Teacher time is a scarce resource," he said. "We don't think it's the best decision . . . to apply this test broadly."
State and local officials say they are monitoring portfolio testing to ensure that it is not overused or misused.
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.