Pedagogy 4.1 (2004) 125-127
By now, portfolios are well established as tools for both learning and assessment in many U.S. colleges. English departments are no exception: first-year writing programs use them; upper-division courses implement them to showcase subject-area learning; even doctoral programs increasingly have students compile portfolios of various documents as they complete their Ph.D. work. Writing, and all learning, is something that is best assessed by viewing documents produced over time, and portfolios are increasingly seen as a way to evaluate students' work more authentically and effectively. However, as with any sound pedagogical practice, familiarity can breed complacency. There is the danger that portfolios themselves can turn into more lifeless testing documents rather than living, shifting portraits of learners, classrooms, and programs. As the pressure for standardized testing increases at the college level (to place first-year writers, to track majors, to award degrees), our portfolio pedagogy needs to simultaneously evolve and remain fresh within our own classrooms even as we articulate their importance and relevance to audiences beyond our classrooms. Considering the historical place of the portfolio in writing assessment can help us continue to rethink the place of the portfolio in college instruction.
Kathleen Blake Yancey's article "Looking Back As We Look Forward: Historicizing Writing Assessment" (1999) is an important historical review of how writing assessment has shifted and changed in college composition. Although Yancey initially recounts the "waves" of assessment that have broken, and receded, on the shores of college composition, her metaphor also offers a new way to consider how educational reforms might come—and seem to go—in the teaching of English. Yancey presents a way to view writing assessment practices in college writing education over the past fifty years in a historicized, but not simplified, manner. Ultimately, she demonstrates how the writing-process movement made space for more recent conceptions of portfolios as complex, multifaceted, shifting assessments of learning.
Yancey discusses the history of writing assessment from the 1950s on, but for the purposes of this essay, I will focus on the latter part of her article. However, I will briefly mention the first "wave" of assessment she discusses (1950s-1970s) because so much of this is still surprisingly relevant to our needs today. During this time, Yancey (1999: 486) reports, the "process of deciding what to teach the students belonged to educators . . . the process of moving students about, to testing specialists." This perspective on students resurfaces in our institutions today, making Yancey's questions profitable ones for all teachers to consider:
These questions are not easy to answer, but we English professors must consider them seriously. What is it we are trying to learn about students with our assessment practices? What does our (writing) assessment privilege? How might students create a self through a portfolio that reflects a sense of selves, rather than a smooth portrait of an autonomous self? What do we want the distance to be between our classrooms and the chosen writing assessment? Standardized, "objective" tests are already dominant in K-12 instruction, and they are increasingly held up as a panacea for the problems of college teaching. We must be able to communicate with administrators, colleagues, and public constituencies about appropriate assessment in English: who should implement it, what it is, and how it can work.
As direct measures of writing (i.e., actual writing samples) gained prominence in writing assessment throughout the 1970s and 1980s, portfolios were increasingly seen not just as a way to place or to track but as a "means of knowing for both student and teacher" (497). Crediting Faigley and Berlin, Yancey (498) notes that if "education ultimately and always is about identity formation," then writing assessment "plays a crucial role in...