Changing portfolios

iStock_000021923625XSmallPortfolios began as a grassroots effort by teachers interested in a more learner-centered approach to assessment and instruction in the classrooms. In recent years, their use has been extended beyond individual classrooms to large-scale, high-stakes assessment. Educators have attempted to standardize the content and scoring of portfolios to meet the reliability and validity requirements of traditional standardized testing.

Robert J. Tierney and Caroline Clark, Ohio State University/Columbus with Linda Fenner and Bert Wiser, Columbus Public Schools; Roberta J. Herter, Henry Ford High School, Detroit, Michigan; and Carolyn Staunton Simpson, Ohio State University, engaged teachers, parents, policy makers and administrators in a discussion of portfolio practices to offer perspectives on the problems that arise when portfolios that are designed for one purpose are adapted to fit another.

Classroom literacy portfolios

Teachers say that portfolios enable them to connect instruction with assessment in an ongoing and dynamic way. Portfolios document the processes of learning, the diversity of classroom experience and the development of students’ skills. Teachers report that as students develop portfolios they become more engaged in their learning and more aware of how they are doing and what they must do to improve — all characteristics of high-achieving students.

District administrators stress that successful portfolio use is tied to comprehensive staff development. They report that teachers need significant amounts of time to learn how to administer and score portfolios and to use the results in ways that enhance instruction. Districts must be committed to providing the necessary resources, and the teachers’ union must be a partner in this endeavor, because teachers’ workloads will likely increase. Although the rewards are potentially great, so is the commitment.

Proponents say that portfolios focus students’ attention on learning how to learn. The reflection and inquiry engaged in by students and teachers is what distinguishes portfolios from simply a compilation of student work. Tierney et al. conclude that the use of portfolios in classrooms “appears to advance important, but often neglected, dimensions of learning, namely, students’ ability to reason, argue, self-reflect, and plan.” They also help teachers to customize teaching and learning to individual students’ needs.

Portfolios as measures of achievement and program effectiveness

Unlike standardized tests that attempt to capture a student’s achievement at one particular moment, portfolios provide a picture of each student’s emerging development. They provide an evidentiary trail that reflects both long-term and short-term goals. In addition to the skills and deficits shown by traditional standardized tests, portfolios reveal the stability of students’ performance over time, their learning strategies and the variety and depth of their achievements. Therefore, portfolios have the potential to offer a more detailed and complete picture of learning.

But, although this in-depth picture of the individual student helps teachers plan their instruction, it makes comparative judgments more complicated. Therefore, proponents of portfolios for large-scale assessment have pursued the standardization of content and scoring.

Tierney et al. stress that standardized portfolios may be useful for evaluating programs and individual performance, but should be recognized as distinct from the learner-centered portfolio used within classrooms. Standardized portfolios are more likely to be collections of student work without the reflection and inquiry that characterize the interaction between instruction and learning in student-centered classrooms.

Tierney et al. believe that, in the end, standardized portfolios may serve as better assessments of program effectiveness than traditional standardized tests. These researchers consider portfolios more sensitive to differences in instruction than traditional tests and thus more informative than other program evaluations, as well as less disruptive to classroom instruction. They also stress the importance of the record of student development over time that portfolios present.

Portfolios spur learning and engagement

It is these researchers’ opinion that the concern about how well portfolios measure up to technical standards may be excessive. They do not believe that the primary benefit of assessment by portfolio is a summary of performance. The greatest benefit is that portfolios spur learning and engagement. They point out that traditional standardized tests could never measure up to the goals for which portfolios were designed:

  • · student engagement in self-assessment
  • · assessment of what students do over time in a variety of situations
  • · integration of assessment with teaching and learning
  • · development of a collaborative relationship between students and teachers
  • · respect for diversity.

Educators are aware that as the stakes of portfolio assessment increase, the demands of reliable scoring will need to increase as well. This tension between the original design and purposes of classroom portfolios and the increased pressure to adapt them to higher-stakes situations continues to grow. Tierney et al. conclude that a single portfolio design probably can not meet the needs of both situations.

“Portfolios: Assumptions, Tensions, and Possibilities” Reading Research Quarterly Volume 33, Number 4, December 1998 pp. 474-486

Published in ERN February 1999 Volume 12 Number 2

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