Many teachers who have questioned portfolio-based language assessment (PBLA) have been wrongly described as “resistors” by PBLA administrators (for a discussion, see Desyatova, 2020). The students in my classes are not resistors: They are keen observers who have seen something that has not been raised before about the portfolio. In one particular class, my students have observed that the “culture of assessment” inherent in PBLA (Desyatova, 2020, p.11) has features reminiscent of their lives under rule by the former Soviet Union, Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).
The students in question are all seniors living in a seniors’ building in which the class is held. They are from what were once former Soviet (Russian) satellite states, such as Belarus, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Armenia, Latvia, Ukraine, Georgia and Tajikistan. They are a wonderful body of keen learners, making every effort to attend classes and participate vigorously to enhance their learning skills. As a senior myself, I was able to easily fit in when I got the assignment. Small talk, especially about the food we eat and the medical problems we have, brought us very close together.
I have two three-hour sessions a week with this class. I initiated PBLA protocol at the beginning of my second week. I told them that I have to get the various forms filled out because they help me know what and how to teach. The government, I told them also, needed the forms filled. Everyone graciously obliged. When I enquired about their PBLA portfolios/binders, I got all wry smiles. (I was not surprised. I am not a big fan of assessing seniors who are not planning to look for work or to further their education).
Anyone with some knowledge of the USSR before 1991 (when the Soviet Union collapsed) would probably guess what I am going to say. To find out about the “populations on which they imposed their rule” and “mold the population” into a “new socialist society,” the Soviet political police compiled “voluminous reports” (Weiner & Rahi-Tamm, 2012, pp. 2-3) on every citizen. It was a form of monitoring and surveillance (for a discussion, see Weiner & Rahi-Tamm, 2012) to control the citizens.
Very sad stories flowed. My students took turns to tell me how everything about their lives, even falsified stories, too numerous to mention here, were constantly recorded, checked and documented in a dossier akin in size to our PBLA binder. (Of course, they all understood that their PBLA binders are for strictly academic purposes and that they are the owners of all the information). The checking and rechecking and recording of their work and the massive amounts of paper used in class are what reminded them of the local political police in their former countries.
Interestingly, a recent award-winning new book by Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes (2019) posits that people who grew up under totalitarian regimes have an acute sensitivity to any form of monitoring and surveillance. Still more interesting and probably ironic, Desyatova (2020), in a recent lengthy article examining “expert teachers’ experiences with portfolio-based language assessment (PBLA),” (p. 1) has found that expert teachers see the “rigid PBLA implementation hierarchy” (p. 13) as a “culture of assessment, not culture of learning.” (p. 14), a “climate of fear” (p. 15), a “demand for subordination,” (p. 13) and “oppression” (p. 15). These and many more, of course, are all features of a totalitarian state.
My learners did not go so far as to criticize PBLA. Asking for their binders simply gave them an opportunity to get something “off their chests” so they could get back to the “business of learning” (Dirkx, 2001, p. 6). What can we learn from all of this? PBLA has not considered the historical contexts and experiences of the students in my class, and I guess, countless other classes. This is just an additional shortcoming of PBLA.
Desyatova, Y. (2020). When inquiry is seen as resistance to change: Expert teachers’ experiences with the implementation of portfolio-based language assessment (PBLA). Critical Inquiry in Language Studies. https://doi.org/10.1080/15427587.2020.1713788
Desyatova, Y. (2018). Batting the piñata and swallowing camels: Teachers learn to PBLA in the absence of dialogic interaction. TESL CANADA Journal, 35(2), 37-47.
Dirkx, J. (2001). The power of feelings: Emotions, imagination, and the construction of meaning in adult learning. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education. 89(Spring, 2001) 63-72. doi:10.1002/ace.9.
Weiner, A & Rahi-Tamm, A. (2012). Getting to know you: The Soviet surveillance system, 1939-57. Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History.13 (1), 5-45. doi:10.1353/kri.2012.0011
Post written by Sridatt Lakhan
Sridatt Lakhan has been teaching non-credit ESL classes for over 25 years with the Toronto District School Board. He has a BA from the University of Guyana, an MA from the University of Windsor, and a BEd (Adult Education) from Brock University. He struggles to make an honest living.