When I got my first TT job, the SLAC I worked at was just starting into an accreditation cycle, and everything was all about assessment. Basically, the accrediting organization
The idea of a portfolio is that students would collect evidence of their work together in a folder, and towards the end of their college career, they'd share this with the college, which would look it over. From the student folders, the college would be able to learn if the college was actually teaching the students what the college said it was teaching students. One of the keys to such assessment is that it's NOT about evaluating student work or learning, it's about evaluating the school. That is, the system imagines that the college does things to "add value to" students, and that portfolios are a way of measuring the "value added." In the system my SLAC adopted students can't be graded on their portfolios, and that portfolio quality can have no impact on graduation or grades; as I understand it, that's typical of most portfolio assessment systems. So students have no stake in the portfolio system. If they do a half-way job, no problem for them. If they hand in an empty folder, there's no problem for them. But for the College, it matters.
I've used "the college" here, but in reality, the college as a corporate entity isn't what does the teaching, and certainly isn't what does the evaluation of the portfolios. So, what happened was that each faculty member was required to help students (primarily advisees) set up a folder, and
I was a new, untenured faculty member who'd never really had any liberal arts experience, so I nodded with whatever enthusiasm I could muster after teaching my four classes that term, and tried to do what needed to be done. I encouraged my advisees to put materials in their portfolio; any materials they thought would show what they'd learned could go in, so my advisees put videos of class presentations, recordings of music sessions, programs from performances, papers, art work, papers, you name it. We were told that our students could use these portfolios to get jobs! To impress people at cocktail parties! Yes, we were told, these portfolios should really be of great benefit to students!
Then graduation time came. The administration told us that we needed to evaluate the portfolios of students graduating in our department, and write up a report about what we were doing well or not. I didn't see any other reports, but my department was doing brilliantly! We were stunning! Our students were miracles of learning and erudition!
Fast forward several years. Take a geographic jump to a colder clime.
When I first came to NWU, the school was also in the throes of accreditation, and by golly, the accrediting organization also strongly suggested we adopt a portfolio system. Being a much larger school, NWU eventually adopted an electronic portfolio system, into which our students might enter anything they wished so long as it's in Microsoft Word (dot doc) format; no need to worry about artwork or performances! And instead of individual advisors or departments reading these portfolios, NWU actually named an Assessment Guru to put together a team every year to read and evaluate.
At the tiny SLAC, an advisor could do a lot to encourage students to actually keep a portfolio; at NWU, there's no incentive for students to keep a portfolio. It adds extra work to their lives without any benefit. Even the pretend benefit of keeping materials together for potential job interviews fades quickly when, within a few short weeks of graduation, students lose all access to the electronic portfolio they've put together, and within a short time thereafter, their work is purged altogether.
Being non-tenured, I nodded with hopeful enthusiasm, and did my best to encourage my advisees to put documents into their portfolio. The Guru encouraged us to give assignments in our first year writing AND other classes that would fit in the portfolio slots, and to require students to put these assignments in their portfolio. And being non-tenured, I complied. The Guru asked us each to let one of the student workers come spend half an hour doing a portfolio presentation for our students. Being non-tenured, I complied. (The presentations were not universally well-done, alas.)
I've toed the party line. I've told students that they should do the portfolio for the university, and also try to benefit from it themselves, by using it to reflect on their university education. I've tried to meet student cynicism with good cheer, with explanations about how reflecting on their experience would be valuable to them. I've given assignments appropriate to the portfolio, and required students to turn in print-outs showing that they've entered documents into the electronic system. Mostly, it's just extra effort to think of ways to get students to put things in their portfolio, make a note of some sort when they do, figure out how that portfolio bit fits into the class.
Doing all of these things gets me no credit; there's no place on MY departmental evaluations that cares about my attempts to work with the portfolio system in various classes. Being known to not do these things could, I suppose, get me some frowns. Making large noises about not doing them would earn me some mutterings.
In the past several months, the Guru has said (publicly) that the portfolio project really isn't working. It seems perhaps (I've only heard hints) the portfolio analyses show that we aren't actually doing something we say we're doing. And the students aren't taking it seriously in high enough numbers. And maybe we're just going to dump the system.
Ten plus years down the line, people (at other schools) I talk to tell me they're dumping their portfolio assessment system because it's unmanageable, doesn't work in some way, adds costs, etc.
So what I'd like to ask all the assessment folks out there: Wouldn't it have been a good idea to actually figure out if portfolio systems really WORK and are do-able before forcing all of us to engage in this process?
Now I'm beginning to hear rumblings about other modes of assessment. These, I'm hearing, will be super effective! They'll be meaningful to our students! We'll know what the "value added to" each student is!
Can I be forgiven for feeling just the slightest tad cynical?
Can I be forgiven when the Marxist inside me wants to know why we're unquestioningly treating human beings as products?
Can I be forgiven when I want to ask what the student is contributing to his/her education?
Because I really do want to profess well, I will try to be reasonably open to the next coming thing.
Because today I feel tired, I just want to smack my head against the wall for comfort.
And I want to ask of the Guru, what research have you done to demonstrate that THIS mode will work more effectively than the old one?