What time is it? Portfolio Time!

My wondering for the week is this: should I start grading students on their assessment portfolios from the very beginning of the year rather than wait for the 1st quarter marking period? But if assessment by portfolio starts from day one, is it fair to enter an F grade for everyone at the beginning of the year because their portfolio would be empty? Since I strongly suspect that it is not fair to grade an empty portfolio for the first few weeks of school, when is a good time to switch from purely formative assessment of blogs to the more summative assessment of the portfolio?

Currently my students start off the year with a basic technology boot camp and the establishment of their own individual blogs. We spend a good chunk of the first few weeks learning to blog (most haven’t before) and getting used to the new normal that is the blended mashup of learning that is my classroom. I give a speech or two about how we don’t use numerical points towards earning letter grades, but instead will provide evidence of our learning in other ways.

At some point, usually around four weeks into the school year, students finally create their Google Sites assessment portfolio from the template that I’ve given them. They share the portfolio address with me, but that’s usually all that happens with the portfolio for several weeks.

But as the end of the quarter approaches, there is a need to begin to fill the portfolio with artifacts of learning, as that is the assessment tool by which quarter (and semester) grades will be determined. In theory, the portfolio should not be a lot of extra work for students because it involves very little new writing and creating, simply sorting and linking assignments and evidence that have already been completed. Therefore this task should be greeted with joy and happiness.

Hmmm. What I see instead is that a small minority of students grab onto the portfolio concept early on and fill it up as they go along through the class: blog post gets published, blog post gets sorted into the portfolio. But the other 80-90% of students do not touch it. Call it avoidance of failure, call it unfamiliarity, maybe throw in some technophobia, and portfolio building does not happen spontaneously for most students until the portfolio becomes the basis for the course grade.


Now, keep in mind that students have been getting an “eligibility” grade from me from the first weeks of school, so being given a letter grade is nothing new for my classes. At the beginning of the year I tend to grade in a pass/fail manner as I have not yet gathered enough information from just a few assignments to really tell an overall picture about a student’s performance. After a time, probably by the 3rd or 4th week of school, I do start guessing at letter grades besides P and F based on the quality and quantity of work that I am seeing published to their blog.

A more accurate letter grade doesn’t get assigned, however, until I feel that I have provided students with enough chances to be successful in each of the major course standards, and that may not occur until right before the 1st quarter grade (or if we are talking AP Biology, until AFTER the 1st quarter is over). At that point I begin to start looking at what students are putting into their portfolios.

But now we have a perfect storm of factors come together: grades are due in a week or two, many students are behind in their blogging, most students have not bothered to figure out how to operate Google Sites because there has been no need to until now, the portfolio is empty, and I feel the need to (finally) show students what their grades will be like once I apply the published guidelines for assessing the portfolio for midterm and final grades. Ready or not, its portfolio time.

So I devoted around a week of class time for students to work on very clearly specified pages of the portfolio and provided what I thought was very specific and often one-on-one instruction on how to post links to the portfolio in Google Sites. But when I went to grade the portfolios last weekend, a week before grades were due, many were still very incomplete or even empty of evidence.

To say that by grading these empty portfolios I filled up the entire eligibility list would be incorrect, but not far from it. I gave a lot of F’s to a lot of good students.

Then, and only then, with a failing grade in hand, did I have students come to me for help in upgrading their portfolio. It was a very busy, but incredibly productive week after grades based on the portfolio were published.

Now back to my original question: when during the first quarter should I make the transition to summative grading based on the portfolio? Is this the only way to do it, with a week of panic right before the end of the quarter? Should I try picking up a grade from the portfolios somewhere in the middle of the quarter even though many of the lab standards might only have a lab or two as possible proof? How about at the beginning of the quarter even though there have been no chances to publish any work? Yikes. Try explaining initial grades of F to parents and coaches. But I bet I’d see students understand the portfolio concept better if we were using it from Day 1.

I suppose I might try evaluating the portfolio (U, PP, P, A ratings per standard) from the first build onwards without grading the portfolio (A, B, C, etc). I might at least get a few more students interested in working on the portfolio as we go, since parents can see those evaluation ratings on Infinte Campus. The eligibility grade could still be pass/fail for a while at the beginning of the year and then move into a real letter grade based on the portfolio once students have had enough chances to fill it. There might be some questions towards the beginning of the year about how a kid is passing but has all U’s, but that is probably easier to deal with than failing the kid for work they haven’t even been assigned yet.

TL; DR: Kids will procrastinate until a grade is assigned. Start assessment based on portfolios earlier so that students have a better chance of being successful on the first midterm grade.

2 thoughts on “What time is it? Portfolio Time!

  1. Amanda

    I think our classrooms must be connected in some mirror universe. Students in the Biology classes I teach have been struggling with their portfolios for the last four weeks. They use Weebly to create their websites, and are expected to provide an artifact that shows their best work on each standard, as well as writing about their understanding of that standard. Like your students, mine had multiple opportunities to work on their portfolios, and accomplished very little. This is a standards-based class, so no grades on portfolios are entered until they have met the standard (corrections or redos are expected). Then we reached the end of the quarter. I think many of the students just assumed the end of the quarter meant they could be done with their portfolios, regardless of the quality of the work. That was not the case. I just spent the last week pulling in students during their study halls, during lunch, and after school to get their work done.

    I’m not 100% sure why students resist this type of assessment so much. I think part of it is that they’re used to completing assessments that have “right” and “wrong” answers. Also, they’re not used to explaining their own learning. Finally, students don’t understand why even when they have a 70% in class, they still have to redo work because it hasn’t yet met the standard.

    Now, onto your question. Should we post grades throughout the quarter for the portfolio, even though little work has been done at the beginning of the quarter? I’ve decided that this quarter I’m going to post the work by standard instead of waiting until the end of the quarter to post all their portfolio grades. For example, my students were working on a food webs standard this past week. This week, they’re going to post about it in their portfolios, and then I will add that one standard as a grade in the “portfolio” category in my grade book. I’m hoping that helping the students to work on the portfolio in increments instead of one big assignment at the end of the quarter will help make it less overwhelming.

    It would be great to stay in touch about our mutual portfolio experiences throughout the year.

    1. Chris Ludwig Post author


      I think there is something universal about teenagers in that a little bit of freedom in deadlines often leads to procrastination and potential disasters at the end of grading periods. But even with that in mind, I think the benefits of student-managed portfolios outweigh the potential disasters. Both of us have the experience of students finally “getting it” by coming in for extra help once they realize what it is that is expected of them. And, like you, from this point in time forward, my students will be adding their work more or less weekly into the portfolio (hopefully) rather than waiting until the end of the quarter. That has been my experience with the majority of students’ portfolios for the last three years. Its just with the 1st quarter grade that I wish I could soften the blow somewhat, but maybe a wake-up call is what some students need.

      We should definitely compare notes and maybe even do a blog/portfolio exchange sometime. Thanks for the comment!


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