Are alternative assessments more equitable?

Portfolio assessment in the Rochester, New York, school system was compared to standardized test results to determine if these alternative assessments are more equitable. Researchers Jonathan Supovitz, Horizon Research, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and Robert Brennan, Harvard University, found that gender, socio-economic and racial inequalities persist even with alternative assessments. Results in Rochester revealed that although the gap between blacks and whites was smaller, the gender gap was larger than in standardized tests.

The dilemma in comparing tests is that there is no way to know for sure which test score comes closer to reflecting a child’s “true ability.” Since this is impossible, these tests can only be compared in relation to each other. Many educators argue that between-group (male vs. female, black vs. white) test performance differences are due to biases in test construction or content, or to inequities in educational opportunities. All tests reflect the values of their creators. Supovitz and Brennan argue that if portfolio assessment is to be taken as seriously as standardized testing, it must meet the same rigorous standards.

They conclude that in comparison to standardized testing, portfolio assessment — at least as it is practiced in Rochester — appears to narrow the racial/ethnic gap, but to expand the gender gap. Overall, however, students who do poorly on one test tend to do poorly on the other. On both types of assessments, low-income students, minority students and English language learners consistently perform worse.

Supovitz and Brennan conclude that portfolios hold promise in terms of focusing instruction on higher-order thinking skills as well as providing more useful feedback to teachers about the skills of their students.

“Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall, Which Is the Fairest Test of All? An Examination of the Equitability of Portfolio Assessment Relative to Standardized Tests” Harvard Educational Review, Volume 67, Number 3, Fall 1997.

“Assessing Reading Difficulties: The Validity and Utility of Current Measures of Reading Skill” British Journal of Education Psychology, Volume 67, pp. 359-370.

Published in ERN March 1998 Volume 11 Number 3

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