Teachers Union Pushes Rollback of NCLB Standard

Published October 1, 2007

As Congress prepares to debate reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act, the nation’s largest teachers union is pushing a revival of portfolio assessment as one way for schools and states to show they are producing results with their billions in federal K-12 aid.

The National Education Association (NEA) has kept up a drumbeat of criticism of the standardized reading and math tests states have used to gauge students’ proficiency since Congress enacted President George W. Bush’s signature education law in 2001.

NEA lobbyists are urging Congress to let states use “multiple measures”–performance-based or portfolio assessment prominent among them, along with attendance and graduation rates–to judge whether schools are producing results, rather than relying on tests with right and wrong answers.

Portfolios are collections of any sort of student work done over time–essays, book reviews, drawings, laboratory reports, and research projects in any subject.

Ongoing Debate

In a July 30 speech at the National Press Club, U.S. House Education Committee Chairman George Miller (D-CA) indicated he might support such varied methods of assessment but said his committee would not consider an NCLB bill until after the August recess. That could delay reauthorization until legislators are caught up in the 2008 campaigns.

The NEA initiative comes amid debate over whether NCLB is beginning to spur modest gains in basic skills or instead is prompting states to lower standards in order to meet annual benchmarks for progress. Some NCLB critics are arguing for a single national test, while others are advocating allowing all states and localities to decide standards for themselves while still taking the federal money.

The NEA and other critics of standardized testing contend portfolios give a broader view of student achievement than do multiple-choice tests. In a March 13 statement to the Senate Education Committee, NEA President Reg Weaver argued scores on existing tests of basic math and reading skills “reflect little more than a student’s ability to regurgitate facts.”

‘Worst’ System

Weaver contended “performance-based” measures are better for measuring such “twenty-first century skills” as higher-order thinking and problem-solving.

“Portfolio assessments are certainly accepted as a useful tool by a teacher within a classroom, when used alongside standardized tests, to determine an individual child’s progress and needs,” noted Don Soifer, executive vice president of the Lexington Institute, a Virginia-based think tank. “But they are not a valid tool to establish how well an entire school or school district is performing in relation to other schools or districts.

“Basing NCLB’s accountability system on portfolio assessments would produce the worst of all worlds for students and taxpayers–all of the federal dollars and involvement in education with none of the accountability for academic results,” Soifer concluded.

Inadequate Feedback

Portfolio assessment as a tool of statewide evaluation has a track record from the 1990s that concerns J.E. Stone, president of the nonprofit Education Consumers Foundation.

While portfolio assessment is useful for providing detailed feedback to learners, said Stone, “it is cumbersome and far too complex for the kind of overall learning outcome reports needed by policymakers and the public.

“The two states that attempted to build their accountability systems around portfolio assessments–Kentucky and Vermont–had to abandon the project,” Stone noted. “In both cases, the systems virtually collapsed of their own weight.”

Failed States

In Kentucky, a legislatively commissioned 1995 study of the portfolio assessment required by the state’s 1990 education reform act revealed significant problems. Among them were lack of controls to ensure reliability and great variation in the assistance students received from teachers, peers, and parents in performing tasks.

A RAND Corporation team reached similar conclusions after examining portfolio assessment in Vermont. One school or teacher might require one kind of project; another school or teacher an entirely different sort. In addition, portfolios were time-consuming, expensive, and robbed teachers of time to teach basic skills.

In his 2005 book, Kill the Messenger: The War on Standardized Testing, Richard Phelps contended portfolios are “open invitations to cheating.”

“If a student turns in a portfolio for a statewide, standardized assessment, who is to know if the essay enclosed is written by that student, or her mother, or by someone in New Zealand who posted it on the Internet?” Phelps noted.

The NEA’s campaign is sure to appeal to many parents who believe their children have to take too many multiple-choice tests. But as San Francisco Chronicle columnist Debra J. Saunders observed this summer, “parents should be aware that NCLB does not constitute the array of tests students take in public schools, but mandates one math and one reading test, chosen by each state, for third-graders through eighth-graders to take each year.”

Robert Holland ([email protected]) is a senior fellow for education policy with The Heartland Institute.

For more information …

“The Vermont Portfolio Assessment Program: findings and implications,” by Daniel Koretz, Brian M. Stecher, Stephen P. Klein, and Daniel F. McCaffrey, RAND Corporation, 1994: http://www.rand.org/pubs/reprints/RP366/

“Review of the Measurement Quality of the Kentucky Instructional Results Information System, 1991-1994” by Ronald K. Hambleton et al., released on June 20, 1995 by the Office of Educational Accountability, Kentucky General Assembly, available through PolicyBot™, The Heartland Institute’s free online research database. Point your Web browser to http://www.policybot.org and search for document #21964