Every year since 1992, I've heard reports of students spending vast time on multiple revisions of just a few pieces designed specifically to go in writing portfolios in the grades the portfolio is used for accountability. Like many others, I've learned to call that approach "portfolio hell."
Every year since 1992, I've known that there's a better option that I want to call "writers' classrooms." Give students regular writing assignments as part of ongoing classroom work, allowing one or two rounds of feedback and revision. They'll learn more about writing. At the same time, they'll be getting a deeper understanding of whatever they write about, be it history or music or plant life or something else. In writers' classrooms, students will end up with a folder stuffed with interesting written work. Their writing portfolios can be, should be, items chosen from that folder and perhaps revised one more time.
After all the years since 1992, though, I've come to a conclusion: accountable portfolios alone will not get us writers' classrooms.
I do not yet see a better option. SB 1 proposes multiple-choice and on-demand testing, which looks to me like surrender: it offers no incentive at all for real writing in real classrooms. HB 508 adds program reviews and principals' evaluations, and if I believe there will be financial support and political will behind the reviews, I'll count that as a credible proposal--but that "if" is as wide as the Pacific Ocean. I'm confident that accountable portfolios plus sustained leadership (from teachers and principals alike) would work, but I don't know how to use legislation to compel or even encourage that leadership to emerge.
Instead, on this chilly February evening, I can only state the challenge: to create effective writers' classrooms in every school, organized around the practices that produce stronger writers and deeper understanding of core content, we need a new strategy. Portfolios alone will not make that happen.