Monday, June 22, 2009

Portfolios are coming home: insights into grade rationing

Weighing down my kids' backpacks in this home stretch of school are large quantities of homework and classwork, some dating all the way back to March. Assignments that could have been part of a productive feedback loop between home and school instead spend months accumulating inside classroom portfolios, selectively becoming part of the "portfolio assessments" that dominates today's grading. As a recent post by SteveH on kitchentablemath suggests, our school is not alone in its practices.

I've come to believe that portfolio assessments and delayed handbacks play an integral role in rationing top grades and ensuring that they don't favor the traditional "egg heads" and "math buffs" (for that, of course, would be elitist).

The strategy, as far as I can tell, is as follows. Rather than give children conceptually challenging material and reserve high grades for those who show mastery (which would favor the eggheads, math buffs, and other left-brainers), schools assign easy stuff where most kids ceiling out at the conceptual/analytical level, and then use rubrics biased towards subjective or trivial dimensions like "creativity," "effort," "neatness", and elaborateness of explanation--a.k.a. "going beyond the standard".

Of course, the more parents catch on to the preeminence of neatness, colorful drawing, verbose explanations, and purple prose, the more those of us who worry about grades play by the game, and the harder it is for teachers to ration top grades appropriately.

This is where portfolio assessment plays its key role--beyond its loftier rationale as "more authentic" than traditional grading systems. Delayed hand-backs ensure that not too many parents wise up to what's going on, or remember to do something about it--until it's too late.


Anonymous said...

Slightly off topic, but 4-H record books have morphed from irritating but fairly useful records of projects done/learned (when I was a child) to offerings of the scrapbooking cult.

Seriously, nine and ten year olds are supposed to write a two page essay about the quality of their relationships with their leaders.

What happened to putting down expenses of the project, how much it is worth, could be sold for and writing up the practical skills learned?

As a leader, I am not sure I actually want to know what the nine year olds thought about our relationship.

Joanne Jacobs said...

A friend of mine hired a high school student to help her fourth-grade son produce dioramas. She reasoned that no educational purpose had been advanced for the art projects so it didn't matter who did them. She has a lot of artistic skills herself, unlike her son, but has a full-time job.