The harsh reality of portfolio-based assessment

My use of portfolios for assessment and grading is not going well. Actually, that’s not entirely true. I’ve implemented portfolios quite well, from a technological standpoint. Google Sites may not be pretty but I’ve managed to tweak them into an assessment portfolio system over the last several years and I’ve accumulated many examples of portfolios filled with excellent student work. But a separate Google Site portfolio in addition to a personal blog for each student is starting to feel like just another website to manage and the self-analysis that I thought portfolios would bring has not materialized, at least not for most students. I even went so far this past school year to discontinue using the portfolios in my “regular” biology sections although I continued to use them in my college-level courses like anatomy and college biology.

Before I deconstruct the failings of my current system, let me review what I hoped to achieve with building a standards-based system that uses blogs and portfolios to share, assess, and measure student learning:

Goals of my standards-based portfolio system:

  1. Students produce artifacts of learning that are seen by more than just the teacher (me) and add to the body of learning resources available online to other students.
  2. Students have the chance to use multiple technological (and non-tech) tools to demonstrate mastery of a topic or skill.
  3. Students know what kinds of topics and skills are required to master the course content and achieve a high grade for their particular course.
  4. Student blogs such as Google Blogger and WordPress serve as a chronological storage/timeline of student learning artifacts and travel with the student even after they finish a particular class.
  5. Google Site portfolios serve a major self-assessment function in that students review their blog posts and select their best work by topic and skill standard for inclusion in the portfolio.
  6. A portfolio site provides an easy way to assess the entire body of a student’s work and makes allowances for the different lengths of time it takes individual students to demonstrate mastery of a particular topic or skill.
  7. Student portfolios serve an accountability function for both student and teacher, since the portfolio is easily shared with other stakeholders such as parents, the local community college that issues our concurrent college credit, and perhaps even the state’s Department of Education.

Let’s see how these goals have panned out:


Students produce artifacts of learning that are seen by more than just the teacher (me) and add to the body of learning resources available online to other students.

This is happening, or at least the possibility of it happening exists because everything is posted online. Certainly parent conferences are strengthened greatly by being able to easily get student work into parents hands. As for a wider audience, however, most students do just enough to get by and truly exceptional learning artifacts that explain a topic well enough to get lots of views are rare. We’ve had a few notable exceptions and a blog exchange or two, but largely the audience for student work seems to mostly just be me.


Students have the chance to use multiple technological (and non-tech) tools to demonstrate mastery of a topic or skill.

This is also happening, given the online nature of blogs. However, students don’t use very many tools. Google Docs/Slides are all over the place and we take a lot of pictures and video of labs and such, but I don’t see a lot of creative photo editing or captioning and video post-production is minimal. We’ve gotten Snapchat involved in some instances, but that’s about it. The non-tech side of things usually just involves taking pics of a study guide or drawing or perhaps the occasional model of a cell or muscle fiber. Its fair to say that students don’t generally seek out new creative tools that they are not already familiar with.


Students know what kinds of topics and skills are required to master the course content and achieve a high grade for their particular course.

 

I like to think that this is true, since the portfolio comes to students pre-populated with a list of content and skill standards with a description of each. There are only 7 major standards, and the portfolio more or less puts them right in students’ faces, including the major subject area topics. As for figuring out how to achieve a high grade in the class, that’s far less obvious and much more experiential as each student and I have a dialogue about the quality of their work in the portfolio. There is a ton a flexibility in using portfolios, which is awesome from a philosophical standpoint, but explaining that flexibility to students in terms of concrete requirements for certain grade levels (A, B, C, etc.) is difficult. It is especially fun at the beginning of the school year when the body of work in the portfolio is tiny and grades usually are simply pass-fail or rarely go higher than a B. Students that consider themselves “A” students often freak out and ask what they can do to improve, when in reality they only have an artifact or two per standard to show off and I’m not ready to make a measurement based on so little data.


Student blogs such as Google Blogger and WordPress serve as a chronological storage/timeline of student learning artifacts and travel with the student even after they finish a particular class.

This is working well. Blogs are the meat and potatoes of the system and students around the school have come to expect to “do blogs in Ludwig’s class” even if they are not initially sure what that means. Blogs are relatively easy to set up and maintain, although I’ve seen some students struggle with remembering their logins. The time stamps are useful in parent conferences, especially where allegations of cheating have arisen. Its very easy to see who published content first if someone later borrows bits and pieces for themselves.


Google Site portfolios serve a major self-assessment function in that students review their blog posts and select their best work by topic and skill standard for inclusion in the portfolio.

This is not working well in most cases. Although some students have rocked the portfolio as a tool for self-analysis of their work, many students struggle with how to characterize and sort their work based on the standards that I’ve posted. After a semester or sometimes even after 3rd Quarter I’ll still have some students who need to be told exactly where to put links to their different work samples. A large majority of students take a link to a piece of work and put it on lots of portfolio pages even if the work doesn’t demonstrate the standards on those pages. Blog posts without graphs will end up under Data Visualization and simple content-area worksheets will find their way to Plan and Carry Out Scientific Investigations. The Self-Analysis page of the portfolio invariably generates comments like “I need to not procrastinate” which is definitely true but is also a lower bar than describing exactly which content you don’t understand. I have the sense that the portfolio is an afterthought for most students who don’t work on it until final grades are due and so the reflection that goes into it suffers from the speed at which it is thrown together.


A portfolio site provides an easy way to assess the entire body of a student’s work and makes allowances for the different lengths of time it takes individual students to demonstrate mastery of a particular topic or skill.

This is working well. It is very easy to look at a student’s portfolio page such as Data Collection and see every graph and data table that they’ve ever done for the class rather than combing through the chronological record of blog posts trying to identify which posts have graphs in them. From a purely quantitative standpoint, its obvious on a given portfolio page how many times the student has addressed a particular standard, assuming their self-assessment of each post isn’t too far off. Portfolios have made it easier to assess and to grade by standard. In the biology courses this past year that I did not use portfolios, I found it much harder to quantify some of the performance standards based solely on the blog posts.


Student portfolios serve an accountability function for both student and teacher, since the portfolio is easily shared with other stakeholders such as parents, the local community college that issues our concurrent college credit, and perhaps even the state’s Department of Education.

 

Yes, portfolios can deliver a lot of information about how I run my classes, but who is looking at them? Probably only the student and I are viewing any given portfolio, and sometimes not even they are interested in what the portfolio can show. In many cases the portfolio is simply “one more thing” for a student to do that “duplicates” what goes on with the blog. Its this kind of feedback from students that the portfolio was just “one more site to manage” that led me to scale back which courses use portfolios. If no one is looking, why bust our butts to create and maintain a nearly duplicate site of student work samples?


Future directions:

The “harsh reality” of the state of assessment portfolios isn’t too dreadful, but I have a sense that portfolio-based assessment could be going a lot better than it is in my hands. The goal of assessment of individual skill and content standards still remains, but the medium in which the information is collected needs some tweaking.

Google Sites are relatively clunky but do the job of collecting work samples as long as you have a laptop in front of you. But as students go increasingly more mobile I’m thinking of trying out SeeSaw as a replacement for the portfolio, and perhaps the blogs as well. It looks like SeeSaw will let students collect a variety of work samples into their SeeSaw portfolio using mobile and laptop devices and, for a fee, it will let me tag and evaluate student work by standard.

Simplifying down to two major platforms (Schoology and SeeSaw) from three (Schoology, Blog, and Portfolio Site) is a step in the right direction, although I’m concerned about students losing access to their work at the end of a school year if they don’t control their own personal blog. SeeSaw looks to be primarily aimed at a younger generation of kids than my high school bunch and is appropriately more teacher-centered, but a lot of the fundamentals are there: collection of learning artifacts, assessment by topic and performance standard, and publication to parents and others for accountability purposes and sharing of created resources. I’ll be curious to see whether the lack of student control of their own individual sites is a real problem in SeeSaw or if it actually creates better structure and accountability for my students and myself.

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  1. TheCentrist’s avatar

    If I read the blog correctly it seems like students are learning the content and academic skills well, but they’re not using the tools for self-assessment (and some redundancy which it looks like you’re on your way to fixing). In my school students do a “Capstone project” twice a year where they take a major project from two of their classes and then modify it and present it to their advisory teachers. The point very explicitly being to reflect on their strengths and weakness and address those in future projects. I can say that my students have the same difficulty here that you’re seeing. Self-reflection is really hard for this age group. Even when it’s being explicitly taught and scaffolded.

    Last year (I didn’t do it this year because I switched schools) I did something a little similar with my “Options” homework. It wasn’t quite the portfolio you have with your students but it was designed so that students could pick and choose among various projects to demonstrate content mastery. STudents had a really hard time with extra flexibility. Most students had started to adapt to it by the end of the year, a few took to it like a fish to water, and a few never really got the hang of it. I think if I had tried it this year it would have been worse because flexibility is explicitly discouraged in the school that I’m working. As such when students are given a modicum of choice they often don’t know what to do it with it, and it’s a struggle to get them motivated/started. I think given time and some changes to the school culture I think it would have worked out better. I guess my point here is that I sympathize with some of what you’re going through.

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