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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 19, Number 2, October 2006

Portfolio equity an impediment for some

by Larry Kuehn

The portfolio requirement for graduation raises some important issues of equity. Think about it this way:

Student A comes from a home with a computer and broadband internet access—maybe even has her own laptop with wireless so she can work most anywhere on her portfolio. She lives in a home where she has her own bedroom with lots of storage area to keep any of the physical aspects of the portfolio over the three-year period. Through her family connections, she has access to a wide range of options for community work. With her access to the family car and a healthy allowance, she has access to a range of sports.

Student B lives in a two-bedroom apartment, sharing a bedroom with two siblings, with only one drawer to hold his clothes and any other material, such as the physical aspects of the portfolio. His only access to a computer is at school or at the public library, 10 blocks from where he lives. Both of his parents work at minimum wage jobs, but neither gets a full week of employment. Together they earn less than the poverty cut-off point for a family of five, so there is no money for any activities by the student that require a fee.

Both of these students are marginal in their performance in school. Any one problem with courses and credits will make graduation with a Dogwood unlikely, at least in the time frame that the province uses to determine the school completion rate. Which of these two marginal students is more likely to be able to finish the three-year portfolio and graduate?

The evidence is overwhelming that social class is an important factor in differences in school performance on an overall basis. Not every individual student’s performance and future is determined by social class, of course. Some resilient young people are able to overcome incredible obstacles, while others with every advantage do not turn those into success. However, on an overall basis, social class is shown again and again to be an important factor.

Schools and teachers can ameliorate the impact of social class. In fact, on an overall basis, the social class differences shown in the PISA international test results are, for example, less in Canada than the US. Some of that is likely a result of more equitable school funding and school practices in Canada. Some of it is a result of factors outside the school, such as less segregated housing patterns in Canadian cities than those in the US.

The point to consider in relationship to portfolios is that the impact of social class on students is likely greater outside of the school than in the school itself. The more school credits depend on activities outside the school, the more likely social class will make a difference. That is why a portfolio requirement will be a bigger impediment to graduation for some students than for others.

The Deputy Minister of Education Emery Dosdall has expressed concern that after decades of graduation rates increasing, the rates in BC have hit a plateau and stayed steady for two years. These, of course, are the years in which the Liberal government and Dosdall have been setting the conditions in the schools. If the portfolio as a requirement—and other changes to the graduation requirements, such as the provincial tests for Grades 10 and 11—are not changed, in the future he is likely to have to ask himself why graduation rates have not just hit a plateau, but have actually declined for the first time. And it will have happened on his watch, with graduation policies that he has promoted and the government has adopted.

Larry Kuehn is the director of the BCTF’s Research and Technology Division.

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