Home » Uncategorized » A Reply to Byron – Standardized Tests vs. Portfolio-Based Evaluations

A Reply to Byron – Standardized Tests vs. Portfolio-Based Evaluations


The response to my post last night has been very exciting. I’m glad more and more people are reading into the truth behind education reform and viewing the movement with a critical lens. Keep on educating yourselves!

I also got a few comments on my post, which I will respond to in separate posts, because these readers bring up great points that I would love to address in more detail.

Here is a wonderful comment from Byron:

Hey Hannah!

I think its really cool that you are so involved in this. I was just wondering about what you thought about the cost and potential bias that comes with reviewing student portfolios as a main form of evaluation. To me, it doesn’t seem feasible for two reasons. If you want a faster evaluation, you would need more people to look through each students work. However, this reduces the equality of each evaluation, since it then becomes a matter of opinion. To avoid this, you could have fewer people, but this brings up the question of time again.

A system where this “less objective” evaluation occurs is in college application essays. I would argue that in this system does not work as effectively in selecting the best candidates as planned. Due to the large volume of college applications, readers are chosen in mass, and spend mere minutes evaluating each essay. This emphasizes only the ability of the student to write an essay that catches the reader’s attention. Although such writing skills are necessary in a student’s future, this again detracts from learning an actual subject in school (“all talk no walk”).

As much as I dislike standardized testing, I think it is still an important part in evaluating student progress. Though the test appears to be stupid multiple choice questions, it shows a student’s discipline and hard work–those who succeed are able to persevere through something they don’t want to do.

The main problem I see with standardized testing is that it is hard to write a test that allows success for those who really want to learn. In primary and secondary schools, the tests are admittedly horrible, since they only test a student’s abilities to memorize facts. However, I have been through classes with tests that I really respected, since they tested my critical thinking and problem solving abilities. I think the GRE and LSAT are also multiple choice tests that are moving toward this goal. Though I can’t say that such tests will work for all subjects (history??), maybe developing better standardized tests will be a more cost effective way of helping this situation.

Again, I think its awesome that you are so inspired to improve education. I am very interested in the topic, but unfortunately, I don’t like to get involved with politics. I would be interested in following what you’re doing on this topic though!

Thank you,

Hey Byron!

Thank you for your very thoughtful comment on my post. You have no idea how much I appreciate it! I hope the response I’m about to give is satisfactory  (and not too long…); if I’m missing anything, please don’t hesitate to let me know! I’m learning here too, and discussion of multiple perspectives is something very valuable to me.

I’m actually gonna start with the second half of your comment and work backwards.

I guess I should have been more clear when I referred to it as standardized testing. What I think we should eliminate is high-stakes testing:

  • tying scores to teachers’ jobs and salaries
  • using scores to determine funding
  • testing the daylights out of students
  • testing at very young ages where imagination and exploration should be emphasized
  • creating a culture of “one-size-fits-all” and standardized minds
  • prioritizing stats and narrow curriculum over humanity and well-rounded education (budget and program cuts basically)
  • creating a destructive learning environment fueled by corporate motives and competition
  • encouraging cheating from fierce competition (and I mean on the part of administrators.. so many scandals have arisen)
  • ignoring out-of-school factors like economic inequity, found to be the biggest determinant of test scores
  • implementing top-down, data-driven, accountability methods used in private businesses but have no real function outside of the financial sphere

This test-centered attitude turns into data-driven instruction, or in other words, “teaching to the test”, which puts more and more kids at a disadvantage every day. The current model of high stakes testing, takes something that hasn’t worked for 40 years and does it over and over again (this time using up even more time and resources) and expects to get a different result. I’m not a scientist but that sounds like a poorly constructed hypothesis to even begin with.

Whenever some method is proposed in education, I always try to bring it back to real purpose of an education: to create open-minded, creative, thoughtful, compassionate, well-rounded citizens that are prepared to participate in America’s democratic society and the global environment. Does high stakes testing achieve this? Certainly not. Does standardized testing without the high stakes even achieve it? It could, but I think we could do without it.

But I understand that probably isn’t going to happen soon because testing is so ingrained in our culture of education. And yes, there are some merits to it. It’s objective. It provides data that’s easy to organize and interpret. And it does measure something (even if what it measures shouldn’t be seen as the “be-all and end-all” of an education). It’s also time-efficient. My proposed methods of evaluation are not objective and would probably require more time (as you suggested). [Cost-wise though, I think portfolios are a lot more cost-efficient than tests, which require a lot of fees from corporations for preparation and implementation. Correct me if I’m wrong.]

But I bring back again the question I posed in my post: “do we care about our kids enough to put in the extra time and money, value their humanity through meaningful assessment, and shift the focus to providing well-rounded educations?” If we do, then we should value accurate, perhaps qualitative data over objective, quantitative data. That isn’t to say that numbers and data points have to be eliminated completely (although, that would be ideal). We simply need to shift the focus and completely eliminate the high-stakes. We need to stop using scores to punish, and instead, use them as starting points to move forward (perhaps has diagnostic tools only; students should only be compared to themselves… and no one else).

You bring up a good point that perhaps we should focus on creating fewer but better standardized tests (and for the love of God, not meant for anyone under the age of 13). Currently, we spend tons of money on countless tests from so many different corporations. And that isn’t even the biggest cost (the biggest cost would be everything I just mentioned above, basically the price our students have to pay). These tests are so poorly written and the data they produce don’t tell us anything about the students they test, yet are still used widespread to rank schools, determine funding, determine the salary of a teacher.

If we must test, then we should, along with implementing more holistic forms of evaluation, create meaningful tests that value critical thinking and analysis (perhaps student-produced responses rather than multiple choice?). But those tests should once again be used for diagnostic purposes only; they shouldn’t be the central focus on schooling or take up too much time or money that can be directed towards other things, like actually teaching a child. Once again, these tests could potentially measure something useful, and for holistic assessment to happen, they might need to be factored into the equation. But until they can be useful, they should be out of the equation.

You also mentioned that standardized tests are an “important part in evaluating student progress” and they show “student’s discipline and hard work”. I agree with you on this. But I’m saying that another method of evaluation, one that celebrates the depth of a student, accomplishes the same exact thing.

A compiled portfolio of a student work from the beginning of the school year to the end definitely tracks progress in profound ways, as well as demonstrates a student’s hard work and discipline to consistently produce meaningful work. Accountability and testing looks at outcomes, holistic evaluations looks at progress and growth. Standardized tests don’t even help a student learn, while portfolios track learning and foster it simultaneously. Most of all, they give students a voice.

Now onto the first half of your comment about my proposed solution. You bring up a very good point about the feasibility of this solution. I admit I haven’t completely got it all figured out yet. My idea of the portfolios was mainly to replace the ridiculous dominance of testing in education and to eliminate the tying of test scores to teachers’ salaries. The portfolios, along with being educational tools that simultaneously track progress of students, would be a part of a very comprehensive and fair teacher evaluation system. That would happen on a much more local level, making it time efficient and easier to organize.

But implementation on a much larger scale (using portfolios as admission criteria into colleges) would definitely be much more difficult. You’re right, my idea presents sort of a Catch 22: it’d take a long time for only a few people to go through all the portfolios, but having more people go through many portfolios would diminish the precision of the evaluation.

That’s why I’m proposing that one portfolio be evaluated by at least 3 different teams of people. I know in USC admissions, there is a team of admission officers for a small region of the US, and they split up into smaller teams that each read batch of apps from that region, and then other teams check that evaluation for fairness and accuracy. Also, this system ensures that each application is given sufficient attention and thought. We could implement the same system, as it would be fairly time-efficient and involve more people per portfolio for a variety of opinions and thus more precision.

However, I understand not every university is fortunate enough to employ such a vast team of admission officers in order to ensure that each application is reviewed holistically and fairly. And thus, the situation could become what you described is currently happening with college essays: the trick becomes writing an essay that is actually given attention from admissions officers who are pressed for time. But I’m not sure how this could happen with portfolios, since they are compiled over a student’s high school career (with the best pieces chosen for submission), rather than in a few months before an application deadline. I think the biggest problem here would be choosing one portfolio over another, since admissions officers do need to make tough decisions, and it’s hard to say one portfolio is better than another. I guess that’s where other admission factors come in…

Now I’m just kind of thinking out loud to myself, so I’m gonna be totally honest: I haven’t thought about this in enough depth to give you a really good solution to that part of the problem. I’m not really that invested in things at the post-secondary level, and I don’t think I can be until things are no longer complete chaos at the primary and secondary level. Also, I don’t think higher education is for everyone, and just as our society needs to move away from the one-size-fits-all attitude that stems from high-stakes testing, we need to move away from this idea that people who don’t go to college are failures. That isn’t entirely true and it creates a dangerous stigma that isolates students who don’t quite fit that mold. There are a lot of options out there: vocational school, apprenticeships, entrepreneurship, internships, jobs. We should celebrate every student, no matter what path they feel is best for them to choose. We should make those options available and acceptable.

I hope that responds to your comment. If I totally misunderstood you in any way, please feel free to comment again. I’d love to talk more about this with you.

To everyone else, if you have any comments, questions, or concerns about my response, please let me know!

Thanks, Byron!


1 Comment

  1. […] answered most of your questions in my reply to Byron, but I did some more research since then and I’d like to add more to my answer than just […]

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