There is a college admissions revolution occurring. The decades long application process involving standardized testing is being revamped and replaced with another assessment—the portfolio. Colleges and universities are pushing for the creation of online portfolios for high school students in the hopes that they will help create deeper thinking and could broaden opportunities for unconventional students. The hope is that students will leave high school with a significant body of work that distinguishes them from other students.
Assessments in the form of a portfolio sound wonderful. Students in the US are currently taking a ridiculous number of standardized tests which do next to nothing to improve student outcome. The portfolio is an excellent way for students to demonstrate what they have learned and to show skills outside of bubbling in a scantron. Those students who don’t test well or who fall outside of how we typically gauge success in school seem to have an opportunity to flourish. And while the thought of fewer standardized tests is immensely appealing, the portfolio alternative is not without flaws. These assessments have three major flaws: they are not standardized, they aren’t feasible on a large scale, and they carry the potential to further the inequity that is so prevalent in our schools.
Without standardization, portfolios might vary widely in content. Subjectivity and reliability are in question because of the differences in the grader’s background and training. Who will determine what the standards will be? Will each school attempt to create their own system or will this be another opportunity for policymakers and big money to formulate standards of their own? It seems that course grades and a standardized test would be a more rigorous and reliable representation of student learning.
The slow and cumbersome nature of reviewing each portfolio is a huge flaw. They are simply not practical on a large scale. Can you imagine the backlog of beautiful, perfectly turned out portfolios waiting for a committee to read, judge, comment on, debate, and then finally make a selection about? It would take months! And who determines that makeup of the committees chosen to decide the fate of students?
There are big promises out there about the assistance that will be provided to students for building their portfolios. But I can’t help but wonder what it takes to create a competitive portfolio? They are certainly time-consuming and could potentially be costly for students who don’t have access to high levels of technology. Is the portfolio a measure of how well you’ve done at school or is it a measure of the ability that you have to get your hands on tools and technology that will make you look amazing? Certainly there are mentors or teachers who are willing to put in the time and make the effort to help students who are considered ‘disadvantaged.’ But many teachers can barely find time to eat their lunch, plan and prepare for their students and classes. In addition, a portfolio may include a photograph, video clip, or other information about student identities; gender, race, ethnicity, and other characteristics also may be known by those evaluating the portfolio and this lack of anonymity may bias results.
Do I love the idea of fewer standardized test? Absolutely. But I have to question whether this is a better way to get into college. Words like ‘deeper learning,’ ‘creativity,’ and ‘opportunity’ sound wonderful, but just perpetuate the current problems with inequality that beset our educational system. Students deserve to have an education that is equitable and provides them with a fighting chance to continue to grow and have opportunities.