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Digital Portfolios: An Alternative Approach To Assessing Progress

By Jeff Archer — March 22, 2007 3 min read
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In the not-so-distant past, a paper handed back at Rhode Island’s Ponaganset High School would most likely have gotten shoved in a notebook, never again to see the light of day. Once graded, student work was rarely referred to again.

How things have changed. Today, students at the rural secondary school regularly cull through their past work and analyze what they have learned. In annual presentations, they give tours of their best creations.

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Digital Portfolios: An Alternative Approach to Assessing Progress

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What has made the metamorphosis possible is a digital-portfolio system, a computer-based method of storing, organizing, and sharing the fruits of students’ labor. The school began using the technology tool in earnest about four years ago.

More than just a fancy filing system, such portfolios have dramatically changed teaching and learning, say students and educators alike. Both say the system has caused them to think more critically about how their efforts meet expectations.

“The good thing about the digital portfolio is that it forces you to take a look at your work almost as a third party,” says Olivia Wolfgang-Smith, a senior at Ponaganset, who has been adding to her portfolio since 9th grade.

It also lets students show mastery with something other than test scores. By doing so, fans say, digital portfolios can help avoid what they see as the myopic focus on data to drive instruction that has become the rage in many places.

Replacing Standardized Tests?

Digital portfolios have flourished in Rhode Island. Four years ago, when the state called on districts to enact local high school graduation rules that include demonstrations of proficiency other than tests, it cited digital portfolios as an option.

Since then, more than half the state’s 39 districts have moved to make such portfolios a high school requirement. The state education department coordinates a network of local educators to share ideas on using them.

“In Rhode Island, these are standing in place of standardized testing,” says David A. Niguidula, a consultant based in Providence, the state capital, who has led the network and who advises schools across the country on the technology.

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At Ponaganset, a regional, 1,000-student high school serving the towns of Foster and Glocester, the portfolio system was built around several broad student expectations, such as spoken expression and problem-solving.

Students upload completed work to their portfolios—be it text, scanned artwork, or audio clips—along with narratives saying how the work demonstrates one of the expectations. Everything is available online, but is protected by a password.

At the end of each school year, students each give a 15-minute talk on their portfolios to two teachers—one they have had for class and one they have not. Parents usually attend as well. The class of 2007 will be the first to have done four of the talks.

Changing Teaching Styles

Christopher Stanley, a history teacher at the school who counted himself an initial skeptic of digital portfolios, now says they have changed his teaching style for the better. He does less lecturing, and more engaging students in projects.

“It used to be you showed up and put on a show each and every day, but you can’t really capture that and put it into a portfolio,” Stanley says. “Now, the kids are in many ways forced to get up and put on that show themselves.”

Some teachers say the transparency of the portfolios—teachers can view those of one another’s students—adds incentive to give high-quality assignments. They also let teachers gauge student growth looking at real work, not just grades.

The digital portfolios have posed challenges, though. Before adoption of a database format that can be searched in multiple ways, navigating them was hard, some teachers say. And not all students see value in linking work to the expectations and drafting reflections.

“It just seemed like it was kind of redundant,” says Michael Ricci, a Ponaganset High senior.

But advocates say digital portfolios are worth working through the bugs. At a time when many educators worry that teaching to the test has become the norm, proponents say, the portfolios give students more ways to show what they know.

“Their best demonstration of problem-solving or reasoning could be different from someone else’s,” Niguidula says. “They’re showing they can meet a set of standards, but they’re also showing who they are as individuals.”

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