Portfolios as Assessment Supplements

by Steve Silvius: Teacher, Ed Researcher and Founder of Three Ring

In June, I attended ISTE 2012 in San Diego. As an entrepreneur intent on building an online portfolio resource,  I was pleasantly surprised by how many sessions were focused on Digital Portfolios.  Teachers have long believed that portfolios are a powerful assessment tool, and, over the years, portfolios have naturally migrated toward electronic formats.

Of course, creating portfolios—digital or analog—has been a time-consuming process that can strike many as too labor intensive, requiring a major change in practice.  But a few factors have emerged that suggest educators may be ready to embrace digital portfolios on a greater scale than ever before.

First, there is widespread dissatisfaction with narrow approaches to curriculum and assessment dominated by standardized, multiple-choice tests.  Parents, students, and teachers all understand that education in the 21st Century needs to promote the blending of subjects and to foster creativity, critical thinking and problem-solving – with more involved, authentic tasks.

Second, the recent proliferation of mobile devices and tablets indicates the incredible potential to create portfolios and similar records of student work in new formats and with less effort is only going to increase.

It is now feasible for teachers and students to capture all sorts of evidence of student learning as it occurs.  As this is done, an invaluable resource is brought into existence—a resource that can be used to replace or supplement testing; to answer questions around curriculum, teacher, and school quality and improvement; and, most importantly, to break down the walls which typically separate assessment and learning/instruction in schools.

A quick example: Using mobile devices, students and teachers could add artifacts to portfolios throughout the year.  If these artifacts are tagged as benchmark assessments, or relevant to an evaluation (to take two examples), they could later be retrieved by the evaluator and used to make judgments. If a large enough number of these have been collected, only a sample need be evaluated, reducing the workload.

Best of all, because these are digitally stored, the process is quite transparent and everyone is focusing not on a de-contextualized “score” but on tangible pieces of classroom work.   This would represent a powerful shift in the education culture: A shift away from multiple-choice only and toward more involved assessments, a shift toward descriptive feedback, a shift toward transparency, authenticity, and smarter use of in-school assessments.  I think this is a shift teachers, students, and parents are definitely ready for.

Certain obstacles remain. For one, everyone seems to have their own ideas about what portfolios should look like and what they should be used for. For another, there is the all-too-easy standard objection that portfolios (actually all in-school activities/assessments) are “subjective.”

I plan to address these objections in more detail in the future. For now, I will simply say that these objections should not discourage schools from adopting portfolio-based approaches and realizing the benefits that they provide.  In fact, the flexibility of digital tools is a great advantage as schools must be given the authority to work out processes that make sense locally and truly drive improvement.

Digital Portfolios—student, teacher, or other—allow for the direct examination of growth.  They are not limited to particular subjects or to particular aspects of particular subjects as tests inherently must be.  Because they are digital, they can be distributed quite easily, allowing for efficient sharing and grading.  Their flexibility respects the expertise of both teachers and students while simultaneously developing that expertise. In short, they are the natural tool for linking instruction to assessment without narrowing either.

 

About the Author: Steve Silvius (@stevesilvius) is a graduate of Georgetown University where he earned honors in mathematics. He moved to Los Angeles where he worked as a math teacher at Animo Leadership Charter High School, continuing to develop his passion for education which began in earnest when he started his own test prep company while still in High School.  As a Marshall Scholar at Oxford University, Steve researched issues around subject matter authority in secondary schools. He then returned to LA, becoming the founding math teacher at Lakeview Charter High School.  He currently works as a Co-Founder and Chief Education Officer at NY-based Three Ring (@threering) where he hopes to build technology which helps teachers and students adopt some of the successful pedagogical approaches he has explored in his research.

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