Friday, February 20, 2009

Kill The Writing Portfolio

Now that there's finally some serious discussion in Frankfort about refining CATS testing, it's time to get rid of the writing portfolio, at least as applied in elementary and middle school.

I've watched my three boys suffer through the writing portfolio required in fourth grade. It is a waste of time. It assesses nothing. It is extremely stressful for the teacher, which the students then internalize.

The writing portfolio is centered on the concept of "peer reviews." That's right, fourth graders edit the other fourth graders. This is known as the blind leading the blind. The teacher is not allowed to edit the student's work, and the portfolios stay at school. So there is little opportunity for the student to receive meaningful feedback from an adult on his writing.

It's all well and good to teach students to revise and reflect. However, spending an entire year revising and reflecting on three pieces of writing is lunacy. These are short stories and feature articles, not dissertations.

Students would be better off writing multiple pieces on a shorter turnaround throughout the the year. That would better approximate the skills they will need in the workforce. It also would reduce the stress on teachers and students if everything didn't hang on three pieces of writing. Students will learn to analyze, write and revise by repeating the exercise on a variety of topics -- not by prolonging the process to the point of torturing all involved.

Students perform better when they enjoy what they are learning and feel confident that their skills are improving. The writing portfolio makes the act of writing seem terrifying and overwhelming.

In addition, the designation of fourth grade as a portfolio year (while not assessing math in fourth grade) necessarily means that math gets little teaching time. That's the unintended consequence of the writing portfolio. The next year, fifth grade teachers are forced to play catch up to remind the students of math skills that have laid dormant during portfolio year. Students should be immersed in math and writing every year.

Students assume that their portfolios are sent off to the Wizard of Frankfort for evaluation. Not so. At the end of the year, the portfolio is scored by teachers within the same school, which certainly puts them in an awkward position. Moreover, after a year of "peer review" it's hard to know what the score really measures.

In contrast, the "on demand" portion of the CATS test (essentially an essay) assesses only what an individual student wrote unassisted. That's a meaningful gauge of a student's writing ability. It also provides ample incentive for teachers to devote the instructional time to the mechanics of good writing.

Those (few) teachers who like the portfolio should be allowed to continue teaching it, but it should not be mandated.

No comments: