Why soft skills are pernicious

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Way back in February 2009, we criticized a report issued by the 21st century skills task force report produced by an ad hoc committee established by the chair of the board of education. The report pushed for a move away from the state’s focus on rigorous content-based academic standards and objective tests toward soft skills and portfolio assessments.

We criticized the report on many fronts, including its focus on skills rather than content, lack of familiarity with existing state standards, lack of facility with empirical evidence, and on and on. One of the key criticisms we had was that the report wanted to focus this effort on underperforming districts. Hold that thought.

The Board of Education has never voted to approve implementation of 21st-century skills, and notwithstanding that the Commissioner has put out an RFP to revise the MCAS to incorporate 21-c principles, and sadly even the legislature in its Act Relative to the Achievement Gap has included

student acquisition and mastery of twenty-first century skills

as one of 13 requirements for assessing turnaround proposals. Well, folks, take a read of today’s Washington Post where staff writer Michael Alison Chandler reports:

Virginia officials are moving to sharply limit an alternative testing program that many schools in the Washington suburbs use to measure the abilities of special education students who traditionally have fared poorly on the state’s Standards of Learning exams.

The effort by state lawmakers and education officials targets “portfolio” tests, which have helped increase passing rates at many schools by allowing students to avoid the multiple choice tests in favor of more flexible, individually tailored assessments. Critics have said that the alternative tests undermine Virginia’s widely praised accountability system and overstate the progress districts are making in closing achievement gaps between racial groups.

State leaders say they are worried that portfolios, intended to help a select group of special education students who are learning grade-level material but cannot demonstrate what they know on a multiple choice test, are being overused.

Lawmakers unanimously decided to phase out the portfolio approach “as soon as is feasible.”

The portfolio tests, called the Virginia Grade Level Alternative, like the multiple-choice test, assesses students’ understanding of the state’s academic standards. Teachers document learning throughout the year in a binder of class work, including worksheets, quizzes and writing samples. Eligible students could have a wide range of disabilities, including information processing disorders or emotional disabilities.

Why? Districts doubled the number of students taking portfolios assessments. Overall, 20% of grade 3-8 students with disabilities were given portfolio assessments, the percentage reaching >50% in some districts. With Chandler reporting that districts are concentrating minority students in special ed classes, higher numbers of minorities take these assessments. End result? VA has been inflating progress in closing the achievement gap.

If we are to implement this sort of soft skill/portfolio approach, we urge that it is done in districts where kids have achieved proficiency. Don’t use it to mask the achievement gap.

Read the piece – and let’s hope that we are not headed in this direction.