ERIC Identifier: ED388890
Publication Date: 1995-00-00
Author: Arter, Judith A. - And Others
Clearinghouse on Counseling and Student Services Greensboro NC.
Portfolios for Assessment and Instruction. ERIC Digest.
Portfolios are scarcely a new concept, but renewed interest, fueled by the
portfolio's perceived promise for both improving assessment and motivating and
involving students in their own learning, has recently increased their
visibility and use. The definition of a portfolio varies some, but there seems
to be a general consensus that a portfolio is a purposeful collection of student
work that tells the story of student achievement or growth. (Portfolios are not
folders of all the work a student does.) Within this limited definition there
are portfolio systems that: promote student self-assessment and control of
learning; support student-led parent conferences; select students into special
programs; certify student competence; grant alternative credit; demonstrate to
employers certain skills and abilities; build student self-confidence; and
evaluate curriculum and instruction.
Because there is no single correct way to "do" portfolios, and because they
appear to be used for so many things, developing a portfolio system can spell
confusion and stress, much coming from not realizing that portfolios are a means
to an end and not an end in themselves. More specifically, confusion occurs to
the extent there is lack of clarity on: (a) the purpose to be served by the
portfolio, and (b) the specific skills to be developed or assessed by the
It is important to keep in mind that there are really only two basic reasons
for doing portfolios--assessment or instruction. Assessment uses relate to
keeping track of what students know and can do. Instructional uses relate to
promoting learning--students learn something from assembling the portfolio.
The perceived benefit for instruction is
that the process of assembling a portfolio can help develop student
self-reflection, critical thinking, responsibility for learning, and content
area skills and knowledge. (It is important to point out that most of the
evidence to support these claims comes from logical argument and anecdotes.
There exists very little "hard" evidence that demonstrates the impact of
portfolios on students.)
These benefits aren't automatic; they have to be built into the portfolio
system. Suppose you are a teacher of writing. You want students to improve their
ability to write, and become skilled self-assessors to improve their writing.
Using portfolios, what things would need to be in place? First, students need
time and instruction in writing. But in addition, you and they need a clear and
explicit vision of what it means to write well. How can students become skilled
self-assessors if they don't know the target at which they are aiming?
This vision is often expressed using criteria that define writing performance
across a range of proficiency levels. Clear criteria might specify, for
instance, that a strong piece of writing would have elaborated ideas, rich with
vivid details; or an introduction that draws the reader in while setting up what
is to follow; or engaging, expressive voice. These criteria, which describe what
it means to write well, not only serve as a guide to revision, but they provide
students with a vocabulary for thinking, talking and writing about writing.
Students who internalized these criteria could use them to revise their work,
reflect on it, and set goals. The student could then use a portfolio to create a
collection of best writing, or diverse writing (poetry, exposition, persuasive
essays, journalism, stories), or a process portfolio showing how one piece
evolved from brainstorming through publication, or a growth portfolio showing
how her revision skills had improved.
Ironically, the instructional benefits of portfolios are not dependent on the
portfolios. Close examination of work, comparison over time, identification of
strengths and weaknesses through good criteria that define quality, goal
setting, connecting personal best or favorite work with who students are
becoming as learners: all can occur when the vision for success is clearly
defined. What is really important is not the portfolio itself so much as what
students learn by creating. Students can review and reflect on their work
regularly whether or not they make a portfolio. The portfolio is a means to the
end, not the end itself.
A classic example of an instructional portfolio system is the Arts PROPEL
secondary creative writing, visual arts and music portfolios in Pittsburgh
Public Schools. The goals are to increase achievement levels and have students
take control of their own learning through systematic reflection on work and
goal setting. (See Yancey, 1992; Camp, 1992; and ASCD, 1992, for additional
discussion of instructional uses.)
The perceived benefits for assessment are
that the collection of multiple samples of student work over time enables us to
(a) get a broader, more in-depth look at what students know and can do; (b) base
assessment on more "authentic" work; (c) have a supplement or alternative to
report cards and standardized tests; and (d) have a better way to communicate
student progress to parents. Large-scale assessment (assessment outside of and
across classrooms) tends to focus on reasons (a) and (b). Teachers tend to like
portfolios for reasons (c) and (d). We will look at three common assessment uses
of portfolios and then discuss some assessment issues.
CERTIFICATION OF COMPETENCE
A "passportfolio" shows
readiness to move on to a new level of work or employment. For example, the
Science Portfolio is an optional part of the Golden State Examination
(California State Department of Education, 1994), a large-scale assessment for
high school students. It is produced during a year of science and contains a
"problem solving investigation," a "creative expression" (presenting a
scientific idea in a unique and original manner), a "growth through writing" that demonstrates progress in understanding a scientific concept over time, and
self-reflection that enlarges on the entries. Performance criteria have been
developed to judge each type of entry.
A higher stakes large-scale example is associated with "Certificate of
Mastery" efforts in several states. Plans in Oregon call for portfolios to
illustrate student progress toward (in the lower grades) or mastery of (by about
grade 10) the state's eleven major goals for students.
TRACKING GROWTH OVER TIME
A growth portfolio is a
chronological collection that shows how skills, attitudes, etc. have changed
over time. Early works are contrasted with later pieces. A large-scale example
comes from Juneau, Alaska--The Integrated Language Arts Portfolio used in the
primary grades. The portfolio is designed to replace report cards and
standardized tests as ways to demonstrate growth and achievement. Growth is
tracked using "developmental continuums," which describe stages of development
for reading, writing, speaking, and listening. Student status on the continuum
is marked at several designated times during the school year. Teacher judgments
of developmental stage are backed up with samples of student work.
Accountability uses relate to demonstrating
to the community the impact of the education. A large-scale example is Vermont's
grade 4 and 8 math portfolios. Students place 5 to 7 items in their portfolio to
demonstrate their competence as problem solvers. The work is assessed using
performance criteria for problem solving and math communication. An example at
the classroom level is student-led parent conferences in which students prepare
portfolios in order to demonstrate to parents what they have learned. (See
Little & Allen, 1988, for an example.)
Assessment uses of portfolios, especially
large-scale, high-stakes uses (for example, high school graduation), are not
without controversy. Some of these issues are: (1) What is the extent to which
we need to "standardize" the portfolio process, content, and performance
criteria so that results are comparable?; (2) Is it feasible to accurately and
consistently assess student skills through portfolios? Won't this be costly?
(Rand Corporation's 1992 study of the Vermont portfolio system provides an
intriguing analysis of this issue.); (3) How do we get teacher buy-in? After
all, teachers will be responsible for making sure that portfolios get assembled
properly; and (4) Will the conclusions we draw about students from their
portfolios be valid? The work may not really be the students' best, or may be
someone else's entirely. There are, as yet, no definitive answers to these
questions, although many fear that high-stakes uses of portfolios will destroy
their instructional usefulness.
CONSENSUAL POINTS OF VIEW
There appear to be several points
on which most people agree:
Portfolios are a means to an end, not an end in themselves. The user must
have a clear vision of what the "end" is.
Purpose will influence all other design and use decisions. Consider the two
major purposes examined above. Portfolio systems that have assessment as the
primary purpose tend to: be more structured (there is more uniformity as to the
items that are placed in the portfolio and the times at which they are entered);
develop performance criteria primarily to allow "raters" to judge student status
and monitor student growth; result in portfolios that belong to the institution;
use self-reflection to gain insight about student achievement and progress; and
require more time and skills for teachers to manage. Portfolios that are used
for instruction tend to: belong more to the student; be less structured; develop
performance criteria for use by students for self-reflection; treat student
self-reflection as essential for learning; and require more time and skills for
students to manage. Once the purpose is clear, questions about what goes in, who
decides, use of criteria, and how self-reflection is used are much easier and
There must be a clear vision of achievement targets for students. Ask this
important question: What is my vision of success for my students? If you can
answer this question very clearly you will find the process of creating
portfolios much easier.
There must be student involvement in the portfolio process. Student
involvement includes selecting portfolio content, developing criteria for
success, and self-reflection. Even those portfolios closest to the "assessment"
end of the continuum recognize the benefit from involving students in the
process. If teachers put portfolios together for students, not only is this a
tremendous burden for them, students learn nothing from the process. Some
authors even take the position that if any other use takes precedence over
instruction, portfolios will fall victim to the same issues as past large-scale
Clear and complete performance criteria are essential. For assessment
purposes, we use criteria to generate scores or grades for students. However,
the major value of criteria is that they assist us to articulate a clear vision
of our goals for students and a vocabulary for communicating with students about
these targets. Students could be partners in their development.
Strong portfolio systems are characterized by a
clear vision of the student skills to be addressed, student involvement in
selecting what goes into the portfolio, use of criteria to define quality
performance and provide a basis for communication, and self-reflection through
which students share what they think and feel about their work, their learning
environment and themselves.
Arter, J.A. (1994). Performance criteria, the
heart of the matter. (Available from: Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory,
101 S.W. Main, Suite 500, Portland, Oregon 97204.)
Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (1992). Redesigning
assessment: Portfolios. Alexandria, Virginia: ASCD.
California Department of Education (1994). Golden state examination science
portfolio. Sacramento, California: California Department of Education.
Calkins, A. (1993). Juneau integrated language arts portfolio for grade 1.
(Available from Juneau Borough Schools, 10014 Crazy Horse Dr., Juneau, AK
Camp, R. (1992). Portfolio reflections in middle and secondary school
classrooms. In. K.B. Yancey (Ed.), Portfolios in the writing classroom (pp.
61-79). Urbana, Illinois: National Council of Teachers of English.
Koretz, D., Stecher, B., & Deibert, E. (1992). The reliability of scores
from the 1992 Vermont portfolio assessment program. (Available from: RAND
Institute on Education and Training, CRESST, UCLA Graduate School of Education,
10880 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, California 90024.)
Little, N. & Allan, J. (1988). Student-led parent conferences. (Available
from: Lugus Productions Limited, 48 Falcon Street, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4S
Vermont Mathematics Portfolio Project (1991). Teacher's guide. (Available
from: Vermont Department of Education, 120 State Street, Montpelier, Vermont
Yancey, K.B. (1992). Portfolios in the writing classroom. Urbana, Illinois:
National Council of Teachers of English.