Every teacher knows the scene: the endless stack of papers, the empty gradebook columns staring you in the face, and the large cup of coffee ready to get you through the night.
Like most English teachers, I’ve been faced with a pile of essays that are riddled with repetitive thesis statements, quotes from Sparknotes, and inventive spelling. I know the pain of spending hours writing margin comments, as well as a short paragraph at the end of each essay, only to see half of them in the trash bin the same day I return them. I knew there had to be a better way, but it took me years to develop a system that made grading manageable, even (gasp!) enjoyable, and ultimately a tool for learning.
The answer to my grading woes was found in a deeper understanding of formative assessment. In their fascinating 2009 study “Developing the Theory of Formative Assessment,” education professors Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam defined formative assessment this way:
Practice in a classroom is formative to the extent that evidence about student achievement is elicited, interpreted, and used by teachers, learners, or their peers, to make decisions about the next steps in instruction that are likely to be better, or better founded, than the decisions they would have taken in the absence of the evidence that was elicited. (emphasis added)
On the surface, this definition may seem simple: Assessment practice is formative when it is used to inform instruction. Teachers do this kind of assessment every day when they gauge student reactions, hold one-on-one conferences, or respond to “exit tickets” in the next day’s instruction. In fact, this kind of routine formative assessment is one of the best tools for personalizing learning since it allows teachers to respond to individual student needs.
But what I wanted was to extend the benefits of that regular, informal formative assessment to the assessments that have traditionally been summative. I wanted to make the students’ persuasive essays, their end-of-unit responses to literature, truly formative.
In practice, making traditional assessments formative for both teachers and learners was complex. But after much trial and error, I developed a system that turns these major assessments into more authentic tools for learning by using the same three elements that make informal formative assessment so effective:
• providing timely and effective feedback;
• providing opportunities for students to revise and improve their work; and
• pursuing information that informs my instruction.
Considering these elements led me to a method of personalizing learning through the use of a portfolio system.
Using portfolios in an English class is not a new concept. In my portfolio system, I have combined ideas from a variety of excellent educators, including Bruce Penniman, Penny Kittle, and my own colleagues. I built this system on the three key elements of formative assessment, as well as an awareness that I needed to keep the acts of both providing feedback and grading work manageable.
Within a unit my students read at least one whole-class text, as well as one independent reading book. Additionally, they write one or two longer pieces about topics related to their lives, such as an op-ed about bullying, or an informational text that gives other teens advice about relationships. Every week students have a few written assignments due. Sometimes they are analytical responses to specific passages from a text, usually about a half page long. Sometimes they turn in drafts of their writing assignments. Every week their work is due on a Thursday night. My job is to provide timely and effective feedback on these items.
Over the next three or four days I read and comment on their work—but without grading it. This might sound tedious at first, but I have found that I am able to do this quickly. I work hard to give effective feedback and look for information that informs my instruction. As I read and leave thoughtful comments on their work, I take note of patterns I see. I pay attention to what students are understanding, what they are misunderstanding, and what they are missing altogether, and how these understandings and misunderstandings might vary between different classes.
The patterns I see inform my instruction for the next week. For example, when I see my A block struggling to use evidence from the text I model that for them the next day. When I notice my C block spending a lot of energy developing a “hook,” but not developing their arguments, I plan an outlining activity for them. As I read and comment, I also make notes about which students I will conference with during class. I make a point to meet with those students who I noticed were struggling the most in their weekly assignments, as well as those that are ready to move ahead.
I’m able to plan personalized learning opportunities, and provide useful feedback, in large part because I am not actually grading their work. I’m not spending time and mental energy on using a rubric to calculate a grade. Instead these weekly assignments are opportunities for me to give students timely and effective feedback and get information that will inform my instruction.
Learning Through Revision
Of course, students then need an opportunity to improve their work. Why else would I spend time commenting on it? That’s where the portfolio comes in. At the end of the unit, I ask students to select three pieces of work to put into their portfolios. This is the part of the assessment system that provides opportunities for students to improve and takes advantage of the fact that much of their learning happens through the revision process. Up until this point, students have been producing work in a low-stakes environment. The only grades they have received are completion grades: They get a “complete” if they turn their work in along the way, even if the work would score poorly on the rubric. This helps students take risks in their writing, share their nascent thinking, play around with ways to organize their writing, and get feedback that will help them improve instead of a low grade that can sap their motivation.
My students then spend “portfolio week” pouring over comments, conferencing with their peers and me, and revising and editing their work until it is the best it can be. Then they turn in this work as a final portfolio. This is where “traditional” grading comes in. I use rubrics to score their portfolio work, but at this stage of the process I don’t provide extensive feedback. Students get a score on the rubric, which aligns with a letter grade and little to no comments. This allows me to score all of their portfolios over three days, since just scoring and recording a grade is much simpler than scoring, recording, and giving feedback. Essentially, this portfolio is where I find out if students met the learning targets I have set through objectives.
However, that isn’t the full story. If a student’s work is seriously below expectations, or if they are struggling with basic conventions errors (misspelling, incomplete or run-on sentences, etc.), I will leave some comments to help them improve. After portfolios are returned, students have three days to do additional revisions and resubmissions. This is where I can hold students accountable for those conventions errors that are the bane of English teachers everywhere. A student might have written a brilliant analysis, but if she has run-on sentences or misused apostrophes, she must revise and resubmit. Additionally, a student who is still struggling to meet expectations in other ways also has another opportunity to revise and learn this skill. Students can then re-submit their work for one final round of grading to see if they met expectations for both content and conventions.
When I first started using this portfolio-assessment system, complete with low-stakes reading response and writing along the way, it dramatically improved my grading life. I probably spend about the same total amount of time grading as I used to, but the “grading” I’m now doing is actually effective. Gone are the days of writing extensive comments on papers that would end up in the trash five minutes after I returned it.
Instead, I now spend time giving actionable feedback that helps my students learn and helps me teach effectively. Students don’t dump their papers in the trash anymore because they know they will need to revise their work based on my comments in order to do well on their portfolios. This also means I get to have rich conferences with students based on the feedback I’ve given, which is vastly improved from the days where I gave comments and just crossed my fingers that some of them would sink in.
In order to make this feedback and grading system manageable, I’ve consolidated a lot of grading time into the weekend between “portfolio week” and “revise and resubmit week.” While it is a busy weekend, I find it much more effective than spending several hours over many weekends grading papers that did little to support learning.
Most importantly, this system has helped me personalize learning while teaching a large number of students. Giving feedback on low-stakes writing has allowed me to focus my attention on individual student’s needs, instead of worrying about how to give them a score. Armed with the knowledge I gained from giving feedback, I have been able to differentiate instruction as well as use individual conferences with students more effectively. Even more exciting, giving opportunities for students to revise and improve through the portfolio process means that they can learn through assessment, not simply be judged by it.
What I have learned through the development and implementation of this portfolio process is that traditional summative assessments can be a tool for learning, not just to show the result of learning. However, in order to make this concept a reality in my classroom, I had to drastically change both how my students and I understood assessment.
Every year it takes at least one unit for my students to figure out how the portfolio system works, and how it allows them to take risks in their thinking and writing. However, once they do, it is magical. They start responding to my comments, or asking me to clarify them, instead of simply looking for their score. They can see their growth across time and explain how they have improved their analysis or writing since the beginning of the year. They learn that “silly” grammar mistakes matter, and that they must meet certain standards in order to receive a grade. But most importantly they learn through the assessment system. And I’m happy to say that, when assessment is a tool for learning, the stacks of grading don’t seem as daunting anymore.