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Teaching Opinion

Instead of Standardized Testing, Consider Portfolio Assessment

By Starr Sackstein — April 29, 2019 4 min read
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The irony of standardized testing is that it seeks to equalize assessment in a way to level the playing field for all students. Regardless of where students are in a state or the country, these exams, not made by classroom teachers, are supposed to show what students really know and can do against a decided upon value.

Of course, most educators understand that they do nothing of the sort.

Standardized tests actually privilege the few who may be good at test-taking or have the opportunity to work with tutors or worse. They are often misleading and biased in a number of different ways, including the social and cultural experiences they often reference.

Despite larger educational systems insisting that testing is the only way to show that students have met criteria for graduation, there are other ways that would better illustrate the depth and understanding of student learning that would also give students more agency and lessen anxiety and stress.

If we truly want to know what students know and can do, we should have a universal portfolio system that allows students to gather evidence of learning over time. This can be done on a national and state level, and educators at every level should be included in the process to develop the success criteria and skill set that should be demonstrated over time. Much the same way standards are developed on the state level and in the way that the Common Core has failed, if we gather the right stakeholders and make decisions together, all students will benefit.

Here’s how portfolios benefit students and the learning process:

  • Once criteria have been determined, students could start collecting learning in their earliest educational experiences. Students can be issued an online account where work can be scanned in and collected each year. This information can be shared with parents, students, and future teachers to help inform instruction. Rather than random test scores that often don’t highlight the depth of student learning, these online portfolios will be available to present classroom teachers and future ones right away.
  • Students can be taught to select work they are proud of and express why they have selected it. Schools and/or states can determine how many pieces should be selected each year, and students will have ownership over what they feel best displays the learning. Obviously, teachers will be supporting students throughout this process.
  • After students make their selections, they will write standards-based reflections that discuss what the piece demonstrates and what they learned throughout the process. For younger students, teachers can and should provide feedback as well against standards.
  • At the end of each school year, students should discuss goals set and met and new goals to be worked on in the following year. Students can learn this language young and will be able to see their progress in their body of work. In the goals, students should talk about the areas in which they see they have progressed and then make decisions about what they want to work on moving forward.
  • Each content area should have its own subfolder in the portfolio.
  • In addition to content-specific goals and learning related to academics, students should also be able to demonstrate interpersonal skills like communication and collaboration as well as self-regulation.
  • Rubrics can be developed that are input with the work to help assess current student levels. Additionally, shifting to a system like this will allow us to de-emphasize grades and focus more on learning.
  • Graduation criteria, as well as college- and/or career-readiness criteria, should be included. One thing my school used to do was have exit presentations in high school where students had to defend their learning and express why they felt they were ready for their next learning journey. We can implement these kinds of presentations at the end of each school year instead of testing. Students will get comfortable sharing what they have learned and also get comfortable asking questions to help clarify that learning. Students, teachers, and leaders would sit on the panels during these presentations.

Throughout the school year, rather than have parent/teacher conferences the traditional way, students will be taught to lead their own conferences, and parents will sit with children to review the portfolio work. Advisory teachers will be there to support. In the younger grades, students should be included in the conferences.

Since learning is so nuanced, so too should be the means in which we assess it. Let’s offer students the opportunity to be seen as whole people who can demonstrate different skills and knowledge in a plethora of ways over a period of time.

Do you use portfolios already? How do they support learning in your spaces? If you don’t, what is the biggest obstacle holding you back? Please share

*picture made using pablo.com

The opinions expressed in Work in Progress are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.