A r c h i v e d  I n f o r m a t i o n

[Education Consumer Guide]

Number 9

December 1993

Student Portfolios: Administrative Uses

WHAT ARE STUDENT PORTFOLIOS? Portfolios are collections of selected student work representing an array of performance. Beyond this simple definition, student portfolios vary widely in content and purpose and even in who decides what goes into the portfolio. A portfolio might be a folder containing a student's "best pieces" and the student's evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses of the pieces. Or, a portfolio may also contain one or more "works in progress" illustrating how a product, such as an essay, evolved through stages of design, drafting and revision. Decisions about what goes into the portfolio are typically made by the student creating the collection but may also involve teachers and peers as well as structural requirements for the entire project.

The purpose of the portfolio may be simply to support instruction or it may also be seen to support administrative functions. This Consumer Guide presents information on what has been learned about using portfolios for administrative purposes, some of the problems involved, and some possible solutions to those problems.

HOW ARE PORTFOLIOS USED FOR INSTRUCTION? Many teachers, administrators, and policymakers have learned that portfolios can provide valuable support for quality teaching and improved learning in many ways, including the following:

HOW ARE PORTFOLIOS USED FOR ADMINISTRATIVE PURPOSES? While there is a growing understanding of instructional uses for portfolios, they are increasingly being called upon to serve administrative functions as well. Student portfolios are being used for accountability reporting, program evaluations, and a variety of administrative decisions affecting the future of individual students. Both inside and outside of schools, observers are uneasy about what role portfolios, commercial tests, and other assessment tools should play in these administrative activities.

The foremost question being asked is:

A second question spins off the first:

Before turning to a discussion of these two concerns, it is appropriate to step back and consider the use of portfolios in administrative decisions and reports.

WHY ARE PORTFOLIOS USED IN ADMINISTRATIVE DECISIONS AND REPORTS? Experience shows that portfolios--as well as any other data source--will be used for any number of administrative matters, with little regard to their original purpose or limitations, simply because they are available at the time information is needed. Moreover, those who have observed how traditional multiple-choice tests narrow curriculum are determined not to tolerate continued dominance of multiple-choice items in any area that would influence curriculum and instruction. Thus, many educators find themselves willing to try portfolios as a way to support reform of both curriculum and assessment.

WHAT DOES THE RESEARCH SAY? Experience with classroom-level portfolio projects shows that many portfolios are currently highly individualized, if not intensely personal. Judged in light of available standards--some district and school policies, court decisions, and professional association standards--many of our existing student portfolios appear to contain too little information for "high-stakes" administrative uses.

Despite the obvious importance of student learning, no single measure of student knowledge--not even richly documented, broad-based portfolios--should be used as a mechanism for meting out rewards and sanctions for students, schools, or programs. Other indicators must be considered for fair and rational decision making. For example, even within the area of student learning, additional information can be gleaned from systematic teacher observations, short-answer quizzes, multiple-choice tests, and other assessment tools.

Practical procedures for addressing technical problems in performance assessments, including portfolios, are discussed below.

WHAT ARE SOME PROBLEMS AND POSSIBLE REMEDIES? Below are some of the problems and possible remedies concerning the use of portfolios for administrative decision making and reporting.

In addition to these problem-specific strategies, several general strategies have been used to buttress the technical underpinnings of portfolios--that is, training raters to criterion (a pre-established standard of acceptability), continued in-service training for teachers, periodic sharing of portfolios across classrooms, auditing, and various research and development activities.

WHAT INSTRUCTIONAL UTILITY DO TECHNICALLY STRENGTHENED PORTFOLIOS HAVE? Where the sole purpose of portfolios is to provide instructional support or curriculum reform, they and the rules that govern them can be created and changed by students in collaboration with their own teacher. Adding administrative uses to portfolios results in an increasing standardization and at least a partial shift in ownership. The shift is away from individual students, teachers, and classrooms, and to the education system in general--a broader but less well defined audience.

A student's sense of ownership of his or her portfolio may well be linked with interest, motivation, and actual engagement and learning, but this is no reason to conclude that students must have complete control over their own portfolios to make portfolio systems work. Some compromise between centralized structure and local, classroom-level discretion may work just as well.

Moreover, a variety of other factors may be equally important in fostering student motivation and learning. More experimentation and research may provide an answer to this controversy. Meanwhile, giving priority to staff development and equity issues--which is essential if portfolios are to be used in administrative decisions and reporting--can be an area of agreement and an important step in advancing student performance.

Who is working in this area?

Where can I get more information?

Educational Testing Service (ETS)
Princeton, NJ 08541

Dale Carlson
California Department of Education
721 Capitol Mall
Sacramento, CA 95814
(916) 657-3011

Winfield Cooper
Portfolio News
Portfolio Assessment Clearinghouse
San Dieguito Union High School District
710 Encinitas Boulevard
Encinitas, CA 92024

Ron Dietel
CRESST--National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and
Student Testing
UCLA 145 Moore Hall
405 Hilgard Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90024-1522
(310) 206-1532

Joe McDonald
Coalition of Essential Schools
Brown University
Box 1969
Providence, RI 02912
(401) 863-3384

Richard P. Mills
Commissioner of Education
Vermont Department of Education
Montpelier, VT 05602
(802) 828-3135

New Standards Project
Learning, Research and Development Center/University of Pittsburgh
3939 O'Hara Street, Room 408
Pittsburgh, PA 15260
(412) 624-8319

Pittsburgh Public Schools
341 South Bellefield Avenue
Pittsburgh, PA 15213

Ed Reily
Office of Assessment and Accountability
Kentucky Department of Education
19th Floor Capitol Plaza Tower
500 Mero Street
Frankfort, KY 40601
(502) 564-4394

Ed Roeber
Council of Chief State School Officers
1 Massachusetts Avenue, NW
Suite 700
Washington, DC 20001-1431
(202) 336-7045

by David Sweet
Office of Research

This is the ninth Education Research CONSUMER GUIDE--a series published for teachers, parents, and others interested in current education themes.

OR 93-3107
ED/OERI 92-38

This Consumer Guide is produced by the Office of Research, Office of Educational Research and Improvement (OERI) of the U.S. Department of Education.
Richard W. Riley, Secretary of Education
Sharon P. Robinson, Assistant Secretary, OERI
Joseph C. Conaty, Acting Director, OR


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