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Rethinking Accountability: Response to "The ePortfolio Hijacked"

This past December, Trent Batson voiced a concern in the C-Level View e-newsletter that others have raised in the past: that those in higher education who are responsible for meeting the demands of external accreditors have "hijacked" the idea of electronic portfolios, turning a learning tool that was once thought to be uniquely the property of its individual authors into a management tool designed and controlled to suit the institutional interests of higher education programs (see Batson called on colleges and universities to make room for "multiple kinds of [systems], managed in different ways, and with different constituencies," allowing students to retain ownership of learning portfolios that represent their own work over time, while institutions employ "assessment management systems" to account for overall student learning to external audiences.

As the department chair who was responsible for helping design Syracuse University's student and program assessment system for its teacher preparation programs, as part of our effort to secure national accreditation from NCATE, I agree with much of Trent Batson's argument. The values of student creativity, self-expression, and personal ownership that have traditionally been identified with student portfolios have been compromised by many colleges' efforts to use electronic portfolios to document the performance of their students and programs for accreditation purposes. But, while I respect Batson’s argument, I take issue with his implication that ePortfolios and comprehensive assessment systems should have nothing to do with one another.

When we were developing our School of Education's ePortfolio system, one consultant told us that we "had" to specify exactly what artifacts students would include in their portfolios and "had" to require that the reflections students prepared on those artifacts address exactly the same principles, questions, or themes. Otherwise, he said, the portfolios could not be validly and reliably rated, for purposes of assessing individual students, cohorts of students, or overall programs. He also advised us that we "had" to require candidates to organize their portfolio artifacts and reflections around the outcome standards and sub-standards we had set for our programs, and "had" to develop detailed assessment rubrics specific to each.

The problem with this advice -- and why we ultimately rejected it -- was not simply that it would have done violence to the principle of student ownership that has traditionally been thought central to the concept of portfolios (although it surely would have done that). The problem was that it ran counter to the constructivist principles that were and are fundamental to our teacher preparation programs themselves, and to the way we had chosen to reflect those principles in our comprehensive assessment system. We had already decided that "Critical Reflection and Explanation of Practice" was to be one of the five basic proficiencies we would expect our candidates to develop over the course of their programs. Portfolios were to be one of the principal means by which they would demonstrate progress toward mastery of that proficiency. Our portfolio system had to allow candidates to select and structure evidence of their professional development according to values and themes of their own choosing, reflecting on whatever aspects of their development they considered important. Otherwise, they could not serve as evidence of their authors' ability to critically reflect on their own and their K12 students' learning and to explain their understandings to various audiences. Nor could the process of developing portfolios serve as a means of cultivating those skills.

Yes, we require each of our students' portfolios to address our five basic proficiencies, to provide and evaluate evidence of their K12 students' learning, to articulate their own  "emerging theory" of teaching and learning, and to reflect on how that theory and their own skills have evolved over time. We believe that all of those requirements are consistent with the critical reflection and ability to account for one's practice that society expects of any aspiring professional. But within that basic framework, we respect our students' right to articulate theories, values, and themes, select and organize evidence, and provide and structure reflections as they see fit. Our own principles require us to do so.

We were able to free our portfolios from the sterile logic of traditional management assessment systems, but still provide a place for them within our overall assessment system. Using “goal-aware” tools our own Living SchoolBook software team has developed to use with our Sakai-based portfolio and course management systems, our School of Education has made considerable progress in creating a digital system that can accommodate both sets of needs. We realized that we did not have to consider or evaluate our students' portfolios as comprehensive evidence of all the most important things they have learned in their preparation programs. (That is the function of the entire assessment system, not any one of its parts.) Rather, we chose to treat portfolios as evidence of our students' ability to critically reflect on and articulate understandings of what they have learned; we now evaluate them on that basis. Portfolios provide each student with an opportunity to account, in an active, creative, and principled way, for his or her own learning and his or her own impact on children in K12 classrooms.

In one sense, of course, the result is exactly what Batson calls for: electronic portfolios over which students retain primary ownership, and more comprehensive collections of evidence of student learning selected and organized for institutional purposes. The difference is in how we think of the relationship between the two, and more broadly, the relationship between learning and accountability. Rather than building firewalls, we should be looking for ways of dismantling the barriers that have denied our students (and by extension, practicing educators and professionals in many other fields) an active voice in the systems that purport to account for their learning and performance. ePortfolios, designed and owned by their authors, are potentially powerful tools for serving that end.

[Author's note: For information about Syracuse University School of Education's ePortfolio and related learning management systems, visit For a provocative discussion of the relationship between learning and accountability, which helped us refine some of the ideas presented here, see Lee S. Shulman, "Counting and Recounting: Assessment and the Quest for Accountability" in the January/February 2007 issue of Change:]

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