More teachers have recently begun using portfolios in all curricular areas. Portfolios are useful as a support to the new instructional approaches that emphasize the student's role in constructing understanding and the teacher's role in promoting understanding. For example, in writing instruction, portfolios can function to illustrate the range of assignments, goals, and audiences for which a student produced written material. In addition, portfolios can be a record of the activities undertaken over time in the development of written products. They can also be used to support cooperative teaming by offering an opportunity for students to share and comment on each other's work. For example, a videotape of students speaking French in the classroom can be used to evoke a critical evaluation of each other's conversational skills at various points during the school year.
Recent changes in education policy, which emphasize greater teacher involvement in designing curriculum and assessing students, have also been an impetus to increased portfolio use. Portfolios are valued as an assessment tool because, as representations of classroom-based performance, they can be fully integrated into the curriculum. And unlike separate tests, they supplement rather than take time away from instruction. Moreover, many teachers, educators, and researchers believe that portfolio assessments are more effective than "old-style" tests for measuring academic skills and informing instructional decisions.
WHY TRY IT? Students have been stuffing assignments in notebooks and folders for years, so what's so new and exciting about portfolios? Portfolios capitalize on students' natural tendency to save work and become an effective way to get them to take a second look and think about how they could improve future work. As any teacher or student can confirm, this method is a clear departure from the old write, hand in, and forget mentality, where first drafts were considered final products.
HOW DOES IT WORK? Although there is no single correct way to develop portfolio programs, in all of them students are expected to collect, select, and reflect. Early in the school year, students are pressed to consider: What would I like to reread or share with my parents or a friend? What makes a particular piece of writing, an approach to a mathematics problem, or a write-up of a science project a good product? In building a portfolio of selected pieces and explaining the basis for their choices, students generate criteria for good work, with teacher and peer input. Students need specifics with clear guidelines and examples to get started on their work, so these discussions need to be well guided and structured. The earlier the discussions begin, the better.
While portfolios were developed on the model of the visual and performing arts tradition of showcasing accomplishments, portfolios in classrooms today are a highly flexible instructional and assessment tool, adaptable to diverse curricula, student age/grade levels, and administrative contexts. For example:
The content in portfolios is built from class assignments and as such corresponds to the local classroom curriculum. Often, portfolio programs are initiated by teachers, who know their classroom curriculum best. They may develop portfolios focused on a single curricular area--such as writing, mathematics, literature, or science--or they may develop portfolio programs that span two or more subjects, such as writing and reading, writing across the curriculum, or mathematics and science. Still others span several course areas for particular groups of students, such as those in vocational-technical, English as a second language, or special arts programs.
The age/grade level of students may determine how portfolios are developed and used. For example, in developing criteria for judging good writing, older students are more likely to be able to help determine the criteria by which work is selected, perhaps through brainstorming sessions with the teacher and other students. Younger students may need more directed help to decide on what work to include. Older students are generally better at keeping logs to report their progress on readings and other recurrent projects. Also, older students often expand their portfolios beyond written material to include photographs or videos of peer review sessions, science experiments, performances, or exhibits.
Administrative contexts also influence the structure and use of portfolios. While the primary purpose of portfolios for most teachers is to engage students, support good curricula and instruction, and improve student teaming, some portfolio programs are designed to serve other purposes as well. For example, portfolios can be used to involve parents in their children's education programs and to report individual student progress. Teachers and administrators need to educate parents about how portfolios work and what advantages they offer over traditional tests. Parents are generally more receptive if the traditional tests to which they are accustomed are not being eliminated. Once portfolios are explained and observed in practice, parents are often enthusiastic supporters.
Portfolios may also be used to compare achievement across classrooms or schools. When they are used for this purpose, fairness requires that standards be developed to specify the types of work that can be included and the criteria used to evaluate the work. Guidelines may also address issues of teacher or peer involvement in revising draft work or in deciding on what to identify as a best piece.
In all administrative contexts, teachers need administrative support to initiate a portfolio program. They need support material such as folders, file drawers, and access to a photocopy machine, and time to plan, share ideas, and develop strategies.
All portfolios--across these diverse curricular settings, student populations, and administrative contexts--involve students in their own education so that they take charge of their personal collection of work, reflect on what makes some work better, and use this information to make improvements in future work.
WHAT DOES THE RESEARCH SAY? Research shows that students at all levels see assessment as something that is done to them on their classwork by someone else. Beyond "percent correct," assigned letter grades, and grammatical or arithmetic errors, many students have little knowledge of what is involved in evaluating their classwork. Portfolios can provide structure for involving students in developing and understanding criteria for good efforts, in coming to see the criteria as their own, and in applying the criteria to their own and other students' work.
Research also shows that students benefit from an awareness of the processes and strategies involved in writing, solving a problem, researching a topic, analyzing information, or describing their own observations. Without instruction focused on the processes and strategies that underlie effective performance of these types of work, most students will not learn them or will learn them only minimally. And without curriculum-specific experience in using these processes and strategies, even fewer students will carry them forward into new and appropriate contexts. Portfolios can serve as a vehicle for enhancing student awareness of these strategies for thinking about and producing work--both inside and beyond the classroom.
WHAT ARE THE DRAWBACKS? Good portfolio projects do not happen without considerable effort on the part of teachers, administrators, and policymakers. Research shows that portfolios place additional demands on teachers and students as well as on school resources. Teachers need not only a thorough understanding of their subject area and instructional skills, but also additional time for planning, conferring with other teachers, developing strategies and materials, meeting with individual students and small groups, and reviewing and commenting on student work. In addition, teachers may need extra space in their classrooms to store students' portfolios or expensive equipment such as video cameras.
However, portfolios have been characterized by some teachers as a worthwhile burden with tangible results in instruction and student motivation. (For more information on the role of administrators and policymakers in the success of portfolio programs, refer to the next issue of CONSUMER GUIDE, "Student Portfolios: Administrative Uses," to be published in December 1993.)
Pittsburgh Public Schools
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Educational Testing Service
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National Center for Research on Evaluation,
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Richard P. Mills
Commissioner of Education
Vermont Department of Education
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New Standards Project
Learning, Research and Development Center
University of Pittsburgh
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Pittsburgh, PA 15260
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Coalition of Essential Schools
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Council of Chief State School Officers
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National Center for Research in Mathematical
University of Wisconsin at Madison
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This is the eighth Education Research CONSUMER GUIDE--a series published for teachers, parents, and others interested in current education themes.
Editor: Jacquelyn Zimmermann