Portfolios hold new promise for schools

New digital tools let teachers, students assess work more comprehensively
By: | May 18, 2016

The 3,000 students in rural Maine’s Regional School Unit 19 begin compiling electronic portfolios of their schoolwork in pre-K, when the district issues every child a Google account.

In the elementary years, teachers snap and upload digital photos of handwritten work. In the upper grades, students accustomed to electronically documenting their school lives habitually upload essays and lab reports and record video of their oral presentations.

“By the time you hit middle school, the students are just doing it because that’s the way we do business” says Kern Kelley, the Maine district’s technology integrator.

Decades ago, portfolio assessment—using samples of classroom work to document students’ progress toward learning goals—meant finding room for bulging binders stuffed with paper. But digital technologies that make it far easier to collect, curate, share and store student work have dismantled the physical barriers that once made portfolio assessment daunting. Schools are now taking a fresh look at the practice.

“The technology is so powerful” says Mark Barnes, a former Cleveland-area teacher who now runs educational publishing company Times 10. “It gives educators an opportunity to create an ongoing conversation about learning.”

A new climate

Artists have always carried work samples in portable cases known as portfolios, and in the 1970s and 1980s, progressive educators began incorporating the idea into assessment programs. In the 1990s, Vermont and Kentucky experimented with statewide portfolio assessment systems, with mixed results.

State-level experimentation largely ended in 2002, when the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) ushered in a demanding annual standardized-testing regime. States abandoned alternative assessments, including portfolios, in favor of multiple-choice tests, says Stuart Kahl, founding principal of assessment company Measured Progress.

But the national climate has changed. Common Core and the state-level academic standards based on it stress the higher- order thinking skills and project-based learning that advocates say portfolio assessment promotes. NCLB’s replacement, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), permits states to incorporate alternative methods, including student portfolios, into their annual assessment programs.

ESSA takes effect amid a growing backlash against federally backed Common Core-linked standardized tests. That pushback, advocates say, won’t change portfolio assessment systems, which are often locally developed and designed to respect individual, non-standardized choices.

“When you can show parents a product, like an essay that started as a rough draft and was really clunky and then you show the growth, it’s a big win” says Marty Creel, who started a pilot program as an administrator in Maryland’s Montgomery County Public Schools. “You don’t see people opting out of portfolio assessments.”

Whether they document the learning process or showcase the final product, portfolios offer richer insights than a set of test answers can, advocates say. “It’s an actual reflection of real work, rather than something that’s contrived and inauthentic” says Robert Kuhl, principal of High Tech High Media Arts, a San Diego charter school.

Choosing which items to include in portfolios requires students to think about their own development in a way that traditional assessments don’t. “The portfolio is really the students showcasing their work, their growth over time—telling their own story of their learning” says Helen Barrett, a retired education professor at the University of Alaska-Anchorage.

And unlike standardized tests, which parents and teachers often see as time- consuming distractions, the work showcased in a portfolio grows directly from classroom instruction. Portfolios are “inherently more fair and more useful” than standardized tests, Kuhl says. “The tests are incredibly discriminatory, and they’re a poor measure of whether or not one should graduate from high school” he says.

User-friendly technology

With the aid of user-friendly and often low-cost technology, schools are turning to digital portfolios to track assignments, communicate with parents, and help students reflect on their own educational progress.

Using free software like the Google Tools suite, or fee-based online systems offered by various companies, students can compile portfolios that include everything from essays on Shakespeare to photos of ceramics projects to videos of a state championship sports game. And digital portfolios stay with students as they move through school and graduate, possibly providing raw material for college applications and resumes.

In Maine’s Regional School Unit 19, teachers take photographs of handwritten work using digital cameras equipped with special memory cards that wirelessly upload pictures. The district is experimenting with Wi-Fi equipped pens that can send teachers digital copies as students work through math problems.

Each year, students build voluminous electronic archives out of which they curate a smaller set of required assignments, entering links to each item into a spreadsheet that teachers can access at grading time. Students can access the same links later, for a refresher on past material. “Basically, a student is building their own knowledge base of everything they’ve ever done, and it’s a click away” says Kelley, the technology integrator.

At 350-student Howe Elementary School in the Wisconsin Rapids Public Schools in Wisconsin, teachers use the FreshGrade electronic portfolio system to document six writing assignments each year.

Teachers can upload photos of young children’s handwritten work, audio of students reading their own compositions aloud, or video of conversations between teachers and students about their writing strengths and weaknesses.

Then, parents receive electronic notifications on their smartphone or computer of the postings and can access their children’s portfolios. “It has given parents a broader view into how their child is doing” says Principal Matthew Renwick. “Parents aren’t just looking at a test score.”

In rural Grandview School District in Washington state, Grandview High School’s college and career readiness program requires every student to undergo a pre-graduation “exit interview” with a panel of community volunteers.

Students can draw on their digital portfolios—which include work samples, SAT scores and reflections on required job-shadowing assignments—to answer questions about their high school experience and future goals. “As we know as professionals, we have to be able to sell ourselves and be proud of the work that we have put forth” says principal Kim Casey.

Drawbacks, challenges

Portfolio assessment has its challenges. Teachers need training in how to use digital platforms and how to plan assessments so they can provide students with “actionable feedback” rather than just a number or percentage from a test, says Creel, now Discovery Education’s curriculum and instruction team leader.

Portfolio assessment remains principally a classroom- or school-based approach. And teachers and educators can expect high hurdles if they try to use it as a broader-based accountability tool. Such hurdles can be practical—Vermont’s 1990s-era portfolio assessment system encountered problems ensuring school-to-school consistency in grading.

But the barriers can also be philosophical: Portfolio assessment is designed to record student growth, encourage reflection and honor the idiosyncrasies of personal choice—not to promote standardization and uniformity.

Indeed, that’s the very source of its power, advocates say. Portfolio assessment “is more time-consuming than putting scan sheets through a computer” says Barrett, the retired Alaska professor. “But

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