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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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Think of something new and innovative that you are trying out in your classroom, school, or district.

Prove to me that it works.

Yep, I want you to stop reading this and think about some fancy new way that you have of educating and/or assessing students and tell me what evidence you have to prove that your new technique works.

Twice recently I’ve been faced with this demand. In the first instance, a teacher who was very excited about using portfolios after hearing my talk at NSTA15 in Chicago contacted me for help in convincing her science department to let her pilot the use of portfolios. She sent me a list of their questions that looked something like this:

1) Have you seen an increase/decrease on standardized test scores?

2) Have you seen an increase/decrease in student motivation?

3) Have you seen an increase/decrease in student competency?

A similar question popped up in the application packet for the PAEMST:

Provide evidence of your teaching effectiveness as measured by student achievement on school, district or state assessments, or other external indicators of student learning or achievement.

Here’s the problem: portfolio-based assessments like those that I employ are meant to be a replacement for standardized test scores. Portfolios are not just some labor-intensive test prep system. That would be like spending months training for a triathlon but instead finding yourself riding a mechanical bull for ten minutes. You could probably ride the bull a little better than if you hadn’t trained, but the bulk of your training would be lost on anyone watching you ride the mechanical bull (badly).

What then do you say to the science department questionnaire about the effectiveness of portfolios? What proof could I possibly provide about external indicators of student learning that could match the depth and quality of the portfolio assessments themselves? ACT data might be the closest thing to useful testing data that I see, but correlating achievement on ACT with pre- and post-portfolio implementation would be fraught with any number of the usual data snarls that we find when trying to compare different test takers from multiple school years.

We are then at an impasse. Those educators like myself that want to use portfolios for assessment will tout all the amazing things that you can observe in portfolios that you could not otherwise. Those who want to keep using standardized tests as the measuring stick for student and educator performances will decry the lack of a link between portfolios and achievement test scores.

I think that pretty soon we are going to have two different systems pop up across the country to accommodate these two assessment camps. One wing will be led by the testing juggernaut that stands to make a lot of money by continuing the current testing regime, but the other will be led by…..Kentucky? New Hampshire? Your guess is as good as mine, but I suspect (hope?) that sooner or later we’ll see some states piloting portfolios (again) as much needed replacements for the broken assessments that we currently use.

In the meantime, I hope that teachers like the one I mention above are allowed or even encouraged to try new ways of teaching and learning and that the burden of proof of effectiveness does not grind progress to a halt. New assessment systems require new systems of measurement. To expect more comprehensive forms of assessment such as portfolios to generate the same simple, supposedly comparable data as has been generated in the past is blatantly unfair to those willing to try something new.




This weekend at the NSTA national meeting in Chicago I’ll be hosting a discussion about the use of portfolios as the keystone of new NGSS-centered district and state science assessments. Here are the slides I’ll use to start the discussion:

Exemplar portfolios can be found here

Please join the discussion if you can make it to the conference or leave a comment here to continue the discussion online.

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What if the next generation of teacher accountability systems simply relied upon assessment of student performances?  You’re thinking: don’t we do that now? No, we don’t. In most cases, our current accountability systems of standardized tests are supposed to measure student learning, which is not the same as assessment.  Attempting to measure learning often leads to limiting ourselves to finding the best statistical models, crafting the best distractors, and determining cut-off scores. We should instead focus on finding ways to figure out what is happening in the classroom and how those learning activities engage students in performances of science and engineering. Isn’t that what taxpayers and parents really want to know: what’s going on in there?

I’m increasingly convinced that it is possible to assess and share a student’s performances of science and engineering without having to put a measurement (number/score/value) on that student’s work. Its pretty simple, and even excellent educational practice, to tell a student how to fix their mistakes rather than simply writing “72%” at the top of their assignment. This kind of assessment without measurement should be happening routinely in classrooms. Its also entirely possible to have this kind of assessment mindset when observing teachers for accountability purposes. Collections of student work, as in a portfolio, could be analyzed and areas of strengths and weaknesses identified and shared with the teacher and, perhaps, the public.

Four years ago I started using digital portfolios to assess student learning as a way to hold myself and my students accountable to a set of science performance standards that I knew my students were not achieving. It is not an amazing stretch of the imagination to picture a system in which such portfolios of student work are examined by the representatives of a state Department of Education to assess how I’m performing as a teacher. Unfortunately, the recent tragic history of accountability practices nationwide would suggest that, at least politically speaking, if an assessment system doesn’t generate numerical measurements of students, no one wants to touch it.

But why does the idea that we can measure  student learning burn so brightly in many Departments of Education?

To answer that, I think we have to look closely at what these so-called measurements of learning (state achievement tests) get us: they provide numbers that stand in for unquantifiable quantities, namely “knowledge” and “ability.” Some of the resulting numbers are bigger than others and thus provide a sense of easy comparisons between whatever the different numbers are attached to. Clearly, if I am buying a car, one that gets 40 mpg is superior to one that only gets 26 mpg. But is it fair or even appropriate to attach certain numbers to students, teachers, schools, school districts, or even states? What do numbers attached to a student even mean? Does a scale score of 400 on a state test mean that a student has learned less than one that earns 500?

Worse yet, what are those measurement comparisons used for? Lets examine my least-favorite use of educational measurement data: the real-estate market. We all know the real estate mantra: location, location, location.  When you look for a new house these days you can quite easily access information about the quality of the neighborhood in which the house is located.  Of course, school ratings are often thrust at potential buyers as a major indicator of the “right” neighborhood. Some of the newer realtor-oriented mobile apps sport new “schools” tabs that are clearly meant to add helpful data to your house-buying experience.

For science, let’s pretend to buy a home here in my town, La Junta, Colorado. In our case the community is composed of one neighborhood so all our school district data applies to the whole town. Here’s what we find out about my school district on some websites that you can easily find on your own (comments mine, but from a prospective buyer’s perspective):

School "rating"

Overall rating: 3 out of 10. Ouch. Better not buy a house here. These schools must suck.Screen Shot 2015-02-23 at 10.50.56 AMWait a minute…this school district was a 3 out of 10. These ACT test scores are right near state average, so shouldn’t the district rating be near a 5 out of 10? Maybe there’s more to it.

Screen Shot 2015-02-23 at 10.48.50 AM

Screen Shot 2015-02-23 at 10.46.53 AMHmmm, on second thought, maybe I don’t want to move here after all.  Maybe this educational environment deserves a 3 out of 10 if these are the kind of people my kid would go to school with. Why else would a realtor show me these numbers?

In reality, a combination of “educational environment” (whatever that means) and state testing scores (CSAP/TCAP) are what brings our magic number down to 3/10. Sure, the realtor sites add the caveat that we should check with the individual school districts to look at multiple measures of success, but as a simple, first look, a single measurement is sure easier to produce. And its misleading,  wrong, and easily manipulated.

And that’s just how numbers are used in the real estate business. The business of education sometimes uses those numbers in far more harmful ways. Look at any recent headline with the words “standardized test” and you’ll probably see some of the fallout from decades of so-called measurement of learning.

I don’t have the magic bullet to fix the national obsession with comparing apples and oranges, but if I did, it would look a lot like a portfolio-based collection of student work that could demonstrate not only students’ effort and learning but also the care and planning that teachers invested to help create an environment in which their students can thrive. That’s the kind of accountability system that I can get behind.

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I’ve received some requests recently to share the biology portfolio that I use with my students. Here’s a quick note about how to use my template to set up a Google Sites portfolio for students to use.
  • In experimenting with student-managed portfolios, I’ve found it best to create a Template Site that students can use to create their portfolio. If you have a set of standards for your class that you want students to reflect upon, then a template is the easiest way to make sure that those standards are part of their portfolio.
  • You’ll want to try this yourself first, especially if you want to modify my template site for your own set of standards. I’ll break this up into teacher and student instructions, which might be the same if you don’t use Google Apps for Education (GAFE).

Teacher instructions for creating your own template Site from my biology portfolio template:

The location where you publish your portfolio template depends upon whether you are using GAFE or regular Google Apps. GAFE users: I would make the template within your domain for students to find. Regular Google users need to post the template to Google’s Public templates like I did. You could even just point students to my public template if you don’t want to create your own.

  1. Log in to Google Apps (either a personal account or GAFE) and find Google Sites from the App chooser.
  2. Once in Sites, click on Create.
  3. At the top of the Create New Site page should be the option to “Browse the Gallery for More” templates. Click on this.
  4. If you are in GAFE, your district-wide templates appear first (this is usually the easiest place for you to put a template for students to use).
  5. For now though, you are looking for a public template, so click on Public>Schools and Education in the “Select Site Template” window.
  6. You are looking for a site template called “Skills-Based Biology Portfolio.”  Searching for “Biology” in “Schools and Education” templates will usually find it.
  7. Select the Skills-Based Biology Portfolio template to use for your Site. This will give you an exact copy of the site that I give to my biology students.
  8. Give it a name (which also determines the address URL) and you are ready to start editing it.
  9. Once you’ve edited the Site to your liking and you are ready to share it with students, go to More Site Options (the gear icon)>Manage Site.
  10. Under Manage Site>General there should be the option to “Publish this site as a template.” Click that.
  11. Give your Template a name and description then click “Submit.”
  12. Done! Now you have a template that students can find either within your GAFE domain or in the Public templates.

Student instructions for creating a portfolio Site from a teacher-created template:

  1. Log in to Google Apps and find Google Sites from the App chooser.
  2. Once in Sites, click on Create.
  3. At the top of the Create New Site page should be the option to “Browse the Gallery for More” templates. Click on this.
  4. If you are in GAFE, your district-wide templates appear first. Find your course’s portfolio template.
  5. Select the portfolio template that you want to use for your Site.
  6. Give it a name (which also determines the address URL) and you are ready to start editing it.
  7. Share the URL of your site with everyone who will be reviewing your portfolio.

Here’s a little screencast that I whipped up for the portfolio setup from the student’s perspective:

Setting up a student portfolio from a template

Let me know if you want me to post any of my other portfolio templates (Anatomy, Chemistry, AP Biology) to the Public templates.

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Introduction (or Why Should I Care About the NGSS?)

As you could guess, one of the major themes at the recent Denver Regional NSTA meeting was how to begin to implement the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) in our science teaching. I started off the conference by attending a talk by Brett Moulding, who is described as being the “writing team leader” for the NGSS, so he probably knows what the NGSS are about.

Mr. Moulding’s talk focused on the following ideas:

    1. No, not everyone has officially adopted the NGSS (Colorado has not, for example) but it does represent the latest research and teachers should always be aware of the latest research into how students learn science.
    2. There are three dimensions to the NGSS: Ideas, Practices, and Crosscutting Concepts.
    3. The past of science education was the “what,” the facts that could be easily assessed.
    4. The future of science education is getting kids to show that they understand the “how and why,” the mechanisms behind phenomena.
    5. “They are going to perform the science.” “Performance is HUGE.” The focus is on student science performances.
    6. This performance should be their assessment. Instruction and assessments should be similar.

It was really amazing to hear one of my favorite messages about science eduction being supported by someone so influential, namely that we should be moving away from focusing on only teaching science facts and instead focus on the doing of science. This was a great morale booster for my talk at the conference later that day about facts vs. skills and the ways that our assessments need to change to measure those skills.

At the end of his talk Mr. Moulding did field several questions about new assessments for NGSS and he pointed out the that National Academy of Sciences National Research Council (NRC) would soon be releasing their proposed guidelines for what the new assessments for NGSS would look like.

The NRC did indeed release new guidelines the week after the NSTA conference and they are summarized here if you are interested in reading them for yourself. All the quotes I’m going to use come from the prepublication download of the National Academies Press book Developing Assessments for the Next Generation Science Standards.

At first, the document reads as I expected, like a manual for those testing companies that are itching to get going on selling us the NGTT (Next Generation of Terrible Tests) with comments like

Designing specific assessment tasks and assembling them into tests will require a careful approach to assessment design. (pg Sum-3)

Nothing earth-shattering here. But then there are some glimmers of daylight that there might be something in this report for us non-test-developers:

…it will not be feasible to cover the full breadth and depth of the NGSS performance expectations for a given grade level with a single external assessment comprised solely or mostly of performance-based questions… (pg Sum-5)

which is pretty obvious if you think about the amazingly large array of tasks that students would have to complete if we are really assessing all the content and performance standards of the NGSS.

To get around this issue of tests not being able to truly measure all that NGSS demands of students, we find the real gold nugget of the document so far:

States or districts might require that students in certain grade levels assemble portfolios of work products that demonstrate their levels of proficiency. (pg Sum-5)

This is the first of several references to the use of portfolios in this report, some of which I’ll mention in a bit.

Without going line by line through the rest of the document, I’ll summarize it by saying that the NRC recommends that educators create an integrated “assessment system” that consists of three parts:

    1. Assessments for classroom instruction (mostly for teachers to see how well students are performing).
    2. Monitoring assessments (external assessments that can be used with large numbers of students).
    3. Indicators of opportunity to learn (measures of the quality and content of science instruction).

What follows is a discussion of why I think that using student digital portfolios can help teachers meet these three requirements listed in the NRC’s report. If you haven’t seen the kind of portfolios we use in my classes, you may want to have a look. The rest of this will make a lot more sense if you can picture the kinds of portfolios that I am talking about.

1. Student Portfolios are Classroom Assessments of the NGSS

From Developing Assessments for the Next Generation Science Standards:

Classroom instruction is the focus of the framework and the NGSS, and it is classroom assessment–which by definition is integral to instruction–that will be the most straightforward to align with NGSS goals (once classroom instruction is itself aligned with the NGSS). (pg 4-2)

By “aligned with the NGSS” they are referring to science courses that can demonstrate that classroom-based assessments measure the different content and skill requirements of the NGSS:

…students need to experience instruction in which they (1) use multiple practices in developing a particular core idea and (2) apply each practice in the context of multiple core ideas. (pg Sum-3)

which ties in nicely to Brett Moulding’s vision for the NGSS as moving away from isolated facts and towards student performances of science.

Can portfolios of student work be used by teachers to assess the core knowledge and skills addressed in the NGSS? Absolutely. I’ve taken some initial steps to do just that with my student portfolios this year. All that is required is that the portfolio be explicitly designed to collect evidence about a particular set of skill and content standards that matches the performance standards laid out in the NGSS. Students and teachers can use such a portfolio to examine and discuss how well students are able to provide evidence that they have met each standard. Of special note given the NRC recommendations, the kinds of portfolios that we use include both content knowledge and skill standards and can allow students to display evidence of applying core ideas and science practices.

2. Student Portfolios are Monitoring Assessments for the NGSS

The NRC report highlights some of the problems with current standardized tests in terms of measuring performance on the NGSS:

The science tests that are currently used for monitoring purposes are not suitable to evaluate progress in meeting the performance expectations in the NGSS, for two reasons. First, the NGSS have only recently been published, so the current tests are not aligned with them in terms of content and the focus on practices. Second, the current monitoring tests do not use the types of tasks that will be needed to assess three-dimensional science learning. (pg 5-3)

In most cases, the items assess factual knowledge rather than application of core ideas or aspects of inquiry that are largely decoupled from core ideas. They do not use the types of multicomponent tasks that examine students’ performance of scientific and engineering practices in the context of disciplinary core ideas and crosscutting concepts nor do they use tasks that reflect the connected use of different scientific practices in the context of interconnected disciplinary ideas and crosscutting concepts. (pg 5-3)

One of the proposed solutions to the issues that surround standardized tests in science is to encourage the development of classroom-embedded assessments such as a

Portfolio of Work Samples and Projects

A third option for classroom-embedded assessments would be for a state or district to provide criteria and specifications for a set of performance tasks to be completed and assembled as work samples at set times during the year. The tasks might include assignments completed during a school day or homework assignments or both. The state or local school system would determine the scoring rubric and criteria for the work samples. Classroom teachers could be trained to score the samples, or the portfolios could be submitted to the district or state and scored centrally. (pg 5-18)

The report goes on to state that portfolios can and have been used for standardizing or auditing across classrooms:

One example is Kentucky’s portfolio program for writing, in which the portfolios are used to provide documentation for the state’s program review. In Wyoming, starting officially in 2003, a “body of evidence system” was used in place of a more typical end-of-school exit exam. (pg 5-19)

Since I developed my portfolio system based on standards not only from the NGSS, but also from a variety of sources such as AP Biology and Colorado Community College Common Course guidelines, the NRC’s discussion of “teacher moderation methods” struck a particular chord and also speaks to the utility of student portfolios to allow for comparison of students from multiple locations:

Moderation is a set of processes designed to ensure that assessment results (for the courses that are required for graduation or any other high-stakes decision) match the requirements of the syllabus. The aim of moderation is to ensure comparability; that is, that students who take the same subject in different schools or with different teachers and who attain the same standards through assessment programs on a common syllabus will be recognized at the same level of achievement. This approach does not imply that two students who are recognized as at the same level of achievement have had the exactly same collection of experiences or have achieved equally in any one aspect of the course: rather, it means that they have on balance reached the same broad standards. (pg 5-19)

Furthermore, the NRC report goes on to explore examples of successful “school-based assessments” such as that found in Queensland where:

Assessment is determined in the classroom. School assessment programs include opportunities to determine the nature of students’ learning and then provide appropriate feedback or intervention. This is referred to as “authentic pedagogy.” In this practice, teachers do not teach and then hand over the assessment that “counts” to external experts to judge what the students have learned: rather, authentic pedagogy occurs when the act of teaching involves placing high-stakes judgments in the hands of the teachers.
Samples of student work (are) annotated to explain how they represent different standards (pg 5-20)

I love this section because it describes perfectly how my students and I use portfolios. I provide the framework of standards for the portfolio and students fill the portfolio with evidence of learning and they have to explain how their artifacts meet each standard.

And finally, the fact that our portfolios are online meets one of the major recommendations of the report:

New technology and platforms that support further upgrades make it much easier than in the past to accumulate, share, store, and transmit information. Such possibilities will make it easier to work with evidence collected in systems of assessment that are composed of multiple elements. (pg 5-22)

3. Student Portfolios are Indicators of the Opportunity to Learn Using the NGSS

“Indicators of Opportunity” is mostly a fancy way of saying “accountability.” Are teachers using the NGSS to the greatest possible extent to support student learning of science? There are many possible measures for such a system, listed here by the NRC:

The report includes a number of indicators that we think are key elements of a science accountability system: program inspections, student and teacher surveys, monitoring of teachers’ professional development, and documentation of classroom assignments of students’ work. (pg 6-9)

Therefore, a portfolio-based assessment system can serve the additional purpose of holding a classroom teacher like myself accountable for which types of activities I provide for my students to carry out:

Documentation of curriculum assignments or students’ work might include portfolios of assignments and student work that could also provide information about the opportunity to learn (and might also be scored to provide direct information about student science achievement). (pg 6-10)

See what they did there? The NRC itself mentions the possibility that portfolios will be used for multiple aspects of this new assessment system. Not only will this portfolio my students produce hold them accountable for learning the different standards for a given course, it will also hold me accountable for providing them plenty of opportunities to meet each content and skill standard.


Like it or not, the NGSS are probably not going away any time soon and at the very least represent the latest and greatest thing to come along in science education. Educators can either sit back and let the big testing companies have their say about how to assess for the NGSS or we can dig in and create our own ways of showing that we are helping our students perform to the level that the NGSS demands. Its pretty clear that everyone knows that technology will be involved. What remains to be decided is whether we as teachers will be content with our students doing “science simulations” in online assessments or whether we’ll have them do the real thing in class and create ways for students to document their learning for all to see. I’m going with door number 2 on that one. How about you?


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I’ll be giving a short presentation later this week at the Denver Regional NSTA meeting about how (and why) to use portfolios for assessment and evaluation in science classrooms. For those of you who like to mark up slides during a talk, here’s the set of slides (pdf link) that I plan to use. They’ll make a little more sense with some dialogue to accompany them, but even if you aren’t attending, you can get most of the main points that I’ll try to make. Be sure to come find me there, or drop me a note in the comments if you have questions.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. All photos and screenshots (except the textbook figure on chemical bonding) are from my physical and digital classroom.

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This quote from Dean Shareski came across my Twitter feed yesterday just as I was archiving some of my favorite examples of student portfolios:

shareskionachievementChallenge accepted.

First off, I’ll state that even portfolios are a weak form of proving “achievement.” The real kind of achievement that we should be aiming for as teachers will be only evident in the lives of our students once they’ve left our buildings. But that sort of thing is about as immeasurable as it gets and is unlikely to be used by anyone other than teachers to prove that we’re doing our jobs.

How do we demonstrate that kids are learning in our classes? One route is obvious: give your kids a test that everyone takes and see how they do in comparison to everyone else. This seems to be the go-to choice for most educators these days, willing or not, given the corporate takeover of student assessment. The problem with a lot of these tests, though, is that they are usually one-time, shot-in-the-dark maybe-you-were-feeling-bad-that-day assessments that really don’t capture what a kid was able to learn and create over the 9 months that they were in your classroom.

That’s where portfolios can demonstrate achievement far better than tests, no matter how rigorous or authentic we try to make our exams. With a well-built student portfolio, educators can look for evidence of what they think is important by requiring students to provide evidence of those outcomes. Do you value collaboration in your classes? Then make a spot in your student portfolios where kids provide evidence of being able to collaborate. Do you value good communication skills? Include a portfolio page about communication. The structure of the portfolio defines what you hope kids will achieve while in your classes. It can include test scores, but a good portfolio is much more than test scores.

It might be clear by now that I’m in favor of creating the structure of the portfolio for the student. There are arguments against that, I’m sure, but if I am going to be held accountable for what my kids are learning, then I’m at least going to provide them some standards against which to measure themselves. For me that means using standards-based grading and portfolio templates for students to fill with evidence for each standard.

As for the portfolios themselves, there are plenty of tools out there for creating digital portfolios, but some have too much reliance upon the teacher (they upload everything, student does nothing) and some have no structure to them (“Here’s this thing I did in March”). I think a good portfolio tool or platform should have the following functionality:

    1. A blank portfolio can be delivered to the student with a built-in, standards-based structure designed by the teacher.
    2. Each portfolio should be continually updated and upgraded by the student as the school year progresses and they learn new content and skills.
    3. Students should be doing all the work of collecting their best work into the portfolio and defending why their work meets or exceeds the standards for the course.
    4. The portfolio should be easily accessible by both teacher and student from school and from home.
    5. The portfolio needs to have a variety of options for sharing with other students, educators, and community members who have a stake in particular students’ performances.
    6. Students should be able to customize the appearance of their portfolio to suit their tastes in graphics, design, and layout.

I’ve been having my students create Google Site portfolios for two years now, primarily because I can create template Google Sites that are populated with web pages for each standard that I want students to provide evidence for. At the beginning of each school year, students log into their school Google accounts, find my template site for their course in Google Sites, and then make a copy of it as their new portfolio. They then spend some time learning the ropes of Google Sites, if they don’t know them already, and customize their sites a bit with new graphics, fonts, and color schemes as they see fit.

The rest of the school year is spent engaging in learning activities that probably could be found in most any science classroom. The major difference is that in the back of students’ minds is always the question: how will I document this in my portfolio? Students are allowed to make decisions about how best to communicate learning. Will they just post a Google Doc copy of an activity or will they write a longer blog post about it? Will they do a certain lab report in Google Docs, Glogster, or Prezi? Will they do the lab report on their own or collaborate with their lab group? What goes into the portfolio is up to the student, so although the class as a whole might do a similar set of labs and activities, each portfolio comes out relatively unique due to the choices students make about how they document activities and which ones they choose to include in their portfolio.

One downside of using Google Sites is that, of course, the portfolio is tied to the student’s account. This means that these awesome showcases of student achievement might get deleted once students graduate and our IT department deactivates their accounts. As I mentioned at the top of this post, I’ve recently been archiving some of the most impressive portfolios to use as exemplars for next year’s classes. Our IT department was nice enough to make me a super boss in our Google Apps domain at least long enough to copy over some of the sites to my account.

Here are some students’ finished portfolios that I’ve archived, sorted by course:






AP Biology:













These are just a sampling of some of the better portfolios from the last couple of years. I’m sure there’ll be issues with permissions and such that pop up with some of the students’ artifacts, particularly for those that have used their school Blogger accounts, but these should at least give you a taste of the organizational schemes that I try to use for each course’s portfolio.

What makes these portfolios stand out from those of other students is not necessarily the quality of the artifacts that are linked in the portfolio, but that each of these students really understood the purpose of the portfolio, namely that of showing that they truly did meet the standards for the course. Not only did they do the required work, but they were also able to explain what they learned and why it met the course requirements.

A majority of the student portfolios shared above were already made public by their authors, although the default sharing setting is private within our school’s Google Apps domain. What does that say about the whole point of the portfolio process? Is it for me, the report card, or the junior college that might give them concurrent credit? Maybe all these things, but by choosing to make their portfolios public, these students have made a statement about what they believe the portfolio is all about.

These students have decided that their achievements are worth noticing. By everyone. In all the Internet. I doubt we’ll see that same kind of passion about their state test scores.


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I normally would automatically vote for Edmodo in a “best-of” web tools list, or maybe Prezi or Evernote, but lots of other people have written about these, and they have become uber-popular the last year or so and most educators have at least heard of them. Chances are that you use them, or at least have tried them once or twice.

My vote for a much more transformative tool goes to BlueHarvest, brainchild of Vic and Shawn over at ThinkThankThunk Industries.  And before you open another tab and search for BlueHarvest, here’s the link: http://main.blueharvestfeedback.com. If you jumped the gun and did the search already, you’ll find what my students did at the beginning of the semester: Star Wars references. Actually, even if you did click on the link, you’ll still find Star Wars references. Shawn’s kind of a fanboy, apparently. Regardless of his fanboy status, he and Vic put their collective nerd powers to work to create a very powerful service for communicating about learning with students and parents.

Since you likely haven’t seen BlueHarvest before, I’ll play tour guide here for a bit, from a teacher’s point of view. I’m going to skip the initial sign-up process which you can figure out for yourself. Its free to try, and apparently free for the first year and some dinky yearly charge after that. They’re not doing this for the money.

Groups and Standards

The first thing you’ll want to do is create groups either by course or by class period (My Students > Modify Groups). I found it easier to make groups by course topic so I currently use the groups Anatomy, AP Biology, Biology, and Chemistry. You’ll then want to enter your standards for each course (My Curriculum > Add/Modify Standards). These are the essential questions or targets that you want each student to be able to do by the end of that particular course. Creating these, of course, is the hard part. Entering them into BlueHarvest is easy. There’s even a mass-upload option, although I didn’t use that.

You’ll want to assign standards to each group so that when you add a student to the group (course), they automatically get that course’s set of standards. The easiest way that I found to do this was to go through My Students > Modify Groups.

When you are done entering standards and assigning them to groups, you should have a setup that looks something like this:

Some science process standards in BH

Science process standards in BlueHarvest

Tip: When creating standards, I found it better to create different standards for each course, even if some of the standards are the same between your courses. That way if you have a student that takes several classes from you, BH can keep track of that student’s performance separately for each class. For example, a student that takes both biology and chemistry from me has both Lab Skills (BioStd3) and Lab Skills (ChemStd3) assigned to them since they are going to be learning very different lab skills in the two courses.

Add Students

The next task in getting BH ready for use is adding in your students. This is accomplished either one at a time or using mass upload from spreadsheet or Powerschool files (My Students>Add/Modify Students). The big benefit of setting up groups first is that adding students to the right course is easy, just select which group they belong to as you set up each account.

Tip: BH can share students between teachers if more than one teacher in a school is using BH. If you are sharing students between two or more teachers, only have one of the teachers input the students into BH. I share several students with our Spanish teacher and at first we both input all of our students. This led to some of the students getting two different sets of login information, one for each class. Its best to only create one account for each student and then use the My Curriculum>Share window to pass those students on to the other teacher(s).

At this point you’ll have lots of student accounts in place and they should even be populated with your course standards. Student passwords are auto-generated by BH, although they can change them later. Most of my students didn’t change passwords, the auto-generated ones are too cool. I used Edmodo to share account names and passwords, but if you can get your kids’ emails in to the system (I didn’t) BH can send login info out.

Providing Feedback

Once you get past the setup phase you now have a way to write specific feedback to students about products that they create for your classes. When you select a student, a list of standards that that student is trying to meet will appear. You can click on one of these to open a dialog box like so:

From the screenshot you can see that you can add text, links, and even audio and video feedback. I’ll admit I haven’t used the audio and video much, but I’ll get there soon. You can leave a numerical score if you like, but I often don’t. Once you click “Leave Comment” the feedback is posted and both you and the student will receive a notification that there is a new comment ready on BlueHarvest. BH supports both email and text (SMS) notifications.

After you’ve done this enough and your kids have gotten the hang of it, some of the discussions start to look like this:



Part of a discussion with a student (name hidden) who is learning about cell membranes 


Once students have had chances to master several different standards, each with a conversation happening about it like the one above, a glance at their standards lets you know about where they stand, especially if you have chosen to use the option to mark some standards proficient, as in this example:

A list of all standards for a student

A list of all standards for a student

These features are great for keeping track of what a single student is doing, but BlueHarvest also has the ability to let you view the activity of all students in BH at once in the form of proficient, recent activity, and convo length reports (in Analytics). Here’s an example recent activity graph where each row is a different student (names hidden) and the brightness of the red color represents how recently any comments have been posted:

Recent Activity Report

Recent Activity Report

This graph reflects the fact that the second student recently asked me to review her online portfolio so there are new comments on several standards. You can also tell from this graph that I need to check in with the last two students on the report since there was a black row almost all the way across which usually means they aren’t producing anything for me to comment on.

These are the main features of BlueHarvest that students and I are using. There’s a lot more it can do that I haven’t touched on, such as numerical grades, which it can track too if that’s your way of operating.

While it might seem to some like just more work and another grade book to keep track of and update, in my experience, this is the grade book that matters most and it really is pretty easy to maintain. But then again, this is coming from a teacher who was managing student comments and grades in 120+ individual spreadsheets last year.

The Point: If you are interested at all in making learning targets or standards the focus of your class, BlueHarvest lets you keep track of student progress towards those standards and streamlines the process of providing timely feedback to students. This sort of tool can be transformative for your classroom if you can train yourself and your students to rely less on number scores and more on detailed, actionable feedback when discussing how much they’ve learned.

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This post is an update to my older year end wrap up that seems to get a lot of traffic from people searching for “standards-based grades” and similar terms. I can only assume that there are lots of folks out there trying to get their heads around what SBG is about and how to do it. What follows will be a (hopefully) concise discussion of my spin on SBG and how I assess students using blogs and portfolios.

If you’ve drunk even a little bit of the SBG kool-aid you’ll know that the lofty goals of grading and assessment reform can be stated something like this:

  • have students show what they really know and can do
  • make learning rather than grades the focus
  • if you have to produce a “grade,” reform your grade book to reflect learning, not compliance/completion
  • ditch points-based, averaging nonsense and banish “zeros” since neither concept helps describe what a student knows and can do
  • since grades reflect learning, allow reassessments to show new understanding of concepts

If these sound like ideas you can get behind, read on. If you like your current, points-based system, read on too, because you’ll feel justified in a little bit.

How do you meet the lofty goals listed above? Here is roughly the sequence of steps that I would recommend:

Step 1: Define your standards

Notice I didn’t say to parrot back your state standards or (goodness gracious) our new national standards. These have to be yours. As in “these are the things that I really believe to be important” standards. There should be some overlap, of course, if your state department of education has done its job reasonably well. Different people will approach this very differently, from having lots and lots of standards to having only a few. Marzano suggests that we should “limit measurement topics to 20 or fewer per subject area and grade level.” I read this after I had done my standards-crunching, but I agree with it, since I identified just 9 major areas that I wanted to assess. These are Content Knowledge, Research, Lab Skills, Experimental Design, Data Analysis, Tech Savvy, Communication, Self-Analysis, and Contribution to Community.

The most unique thing about this set of standards compared to others I’ve seen is the smashing of all the content for each course into one standard. I teach science and so have lots and lots of content to discuss in each of my courses (anatomy, biology, chemistry, physics, and AP Biology and yes, I’m at a rural school with only 4 science teachers in grades 7-12 for 600 kids). I don’t think that content is the most important thing, though, not anymore, with the interwebz and such just a Google away. I don’t ignore content ideas, I just don’t overemphasize them in the final grade determination. Instead, I’m more interested in building a skill set for students that they are going to take with them regardless of which little factoids that they remember from my classes. But that’s my take on standards. Yours will be yours.

Step 2: Develop an Assessment Philosophy

Yes, I know this sounds like something that you did for an assignment once upon a time in teacher-school, but really, it will help you out greatly if you put it down in words, especially if you make it available to parents and students. Mine’s here, if you want an example. I’m sure it would fail all of the guidelines for an official teacher-school document, but there it is. This doc is where you need to think about what you believe about assessment of student learning: Do you give quizzes and tests to see what kids know? Does every student do the same set of assignments in the same way? Will you assess using your favorite worksheets but score them by standard? Can students make up for failing or missed assignments or is assessment a one-shot deal so they learn the value of deadlines?

Basically, what you want to do in this Assessment Philosophy is lay out how you plan on determining what students know and what they can do. Again, my way of doing it may be very different from yours. I have students do a ton of writing and creating in blogs and portfolios but do almost no formal testing. Other teachers that I adore do lots of tests and quizzes that show how much their students have learned. Good arguments exist for both kinds of assessments.

Step 3: Determine how you will assign final grades

Ah, the stickiest issue of all, particularly for high school teachers who get to deal with parents and students worried about class rank, scholarships, and acceptance to their favorite college. Woo hoo!? If you have to assign grades, and most of us do, this is the part where your idealistic standards hit the wall of whatever online gradebook your school happens to suscribe to. Some play nicer with standards than others, but in any case you are going to have to figure out how to mesh what you do with standards with what students and parents see in the gradebook. I happen to have been fortunate enough to be good friends with my tech director who set up some lovely manually entered standards within Infinite Campus so I can determine the grade however I want and just report it out online. Other teachers I’ve read about have not been so lucky, having to prove that x% of their grade comes from labs and y% from tests or whatever, which will take a bit more massaging in a standards-based system.
You will want to carefully consider how you convert what students do on lots of separate standards into a single letter grade. This task sucks and essentially reverse-engineers everything you’ve been trying to do, but until more teachers and school districts get behind just reporting learning standards, we’ll have to deal with it. Many options exist: Will you figure out an average score using scores from all the standards? Will you have basic and advanced standards and use achievement of the advanced ones to assign higher letter grades? Will you look at performance on all the standards at once and apply a set of rules to determine a final grade? I lean towards the latter and have a system in place that counts the number of advanced, proficient, partially-proficient, and unsatisfactory standards to determine the final grade.

Step 4: Try it out!

Implementation time! After a summer of planning and writing about your new standards-based grading system, the first days of school are going to be great! Except don’t expect students to want to hear every detail all at once. Spend some time getting to know your students and building up your classroom community before digging into the nitty gritty of how their grades will be determined. Oh sure, make your pretty documents and web pages available, but don’t expect students to read them right away, if ever. Instead, coach students on the philosophy of your class, about what they can do to show you that they are learning something in your class. Give them the tools to be successful on your assessments, even if they don’t quite see the big picture of how standards-based grading in your class works. And constantly remind them that they can improve on past failures and mistakes, if you allow that sort of thing, because chances are your students have been trained to fire and forget on most assessments. Its the mental shift that you need to work on, not just in yourself, but in your students as well for this sort of assessment scheme to succeed.

Be warned, though. These changes will come at a serious price: your time.

There are some school days that I look enviously at the student aides for one of my neighbor teachers, slogging away with an answer key and a red marker at piles of that teacher’s turned-in assignments. Oh, says I upon seeing such sights, why didn’t I stay with the worksheet and my lovely 10 (or 1) point grading system? I could have aides do my grading for me. It was so easy to check off whether someone had done some learning or not. But I know that system didn’t really do much besides speed up the process of assigning a grade, and wasn’t really about assessment at all.

It takes time to really get to know what kids are learning in your classroom. Anyone, including student aides, can grade a worksheet, tally a point total, and enter it into a grade book without knowing a darn thing about the student that turned it in. It will take more time to grade by standards, particularly if you are going to go the route I did and develop student blogs and online portfolios. Those sorts of things take time to make and take time to assess so be prepared to spend more class time on assessments and be ready to spend more of your own time on reviewing them.

I love this note that a reader left in a conversation on my Assessment Philosophy:

I’ve been reading this document and now have a clearer idea of what you were talking about. My principal question, which I’m sure is answered somewhere, is how does one manage it? Reading and commenting on scores of portfolios that vary greatly in quality would seem to be an extremely time-consuming endeavor. I have been in a 17 year struggle to have a normal life outside of teaching, one I have largely lost. I want the students to do most of the thinking and the work while I do relatively little, but for general classes anyway, the reverse seems to be most true. Do you know where in Chris’ webpage or blog he reveals the secrets to evaluating the portfolios without committing evenings and weekends to the task? Thanks,


Larry is absolutely in the right in thinking that reading and commenting on blogs and portfolios is extremely time consuming. But the tradeoff is that no two student blogs are the same and reading a student’s writing is so much more interesting than scoring worksheets. The digital artifacts they create will be very unique and entertaining if they are done well, as most are in my experience. Is it overwhelming at times? Sure! But strategies like using Google Reader to keep track of when students post and which ones I’ve read and using Google Doc spreadsheets (or Blue Harvest) for keeping track of comments helps a lot. I also keep links to all student portfolios in one place using Pearltrees, which makes access to the otherwise clunky Google Sites in our district much more useable.

I found, too, that as the school year progressed, I spent much less time “grading” the blogs and was able to just read them to keep tabs on what the students were writing about and making sure they weren’t straying too far afield in putting their portfolio together. This happened somewhere around the end of the first semester when there was an “aha” moment of sorts for a lot of students when they finally understood what the portfolio was about and how it was being used to determine their overall grade. From that point on, it was obvious to students that the blank portfolio pages that I provided for them represented what I wanted them to know before they left the class. From then on, they became much more aware of what had to be done and they just did it, regardless of whether I “graded” their posts every time or not. In fact, for most of 2nd semester I only graded the portfolio (since that’s what I said I would grade anyway) and just read the blog posts for fun as part of the portfolio.

I think there will always be some sort of “training period” each school year in which I have to do a lot of “grading” and actually give blog posts scores on the 4 point scale just to give students an idea of what I’m looking for, but from then on, they seem pretty capable of producing artifacts for the portfolio without me having to grade each and every one of them. Grading the portfolios was an awesome way to end the year and a real triumph for standards-based grading since the portfolio made it so easy to assess what a student had learned in specific areas.

Still, I won’t claim to be sad to hit summer so I can spend some more time with my own little grumkins:

Ludwig kids

Thanks for hanging on through this not-so-concise romp through how I implement standards-based grades in my classes. I encourage you to try even small steps to reform your grading system, if you haven’t already. As for all the details, I’m sure there’s tons of stuff I left out so drop me a comment and we’ll fill in the gaps together.

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