Assessment Opinion

Portfolio Assessment: Virtues, Vices, and Examples

By Contributing Blogger — March 01, 2018 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

This post is by Justin Wells, Executive Director of Envision Learning Partners.

Portfolio assessment has been around for a long time, and the practice appears to be growing. It’s easy to see why. A portfolio lends itself naturally to assessment, the aim of which is to collect evidence to answer a question about learning or performance. The fundamental concept of a portfolio, adopted from the world of the arts, is to make claims about one’s skills through curated evidence of one’s work. Claim: I am a skilled photographer of family portraits. Evidence: Look at this portfolio of portraits I have taken.

When it comes to assessment, the portfolio concept has two chief virtues:

  • A portfolio is an impressively flexible form of assessment because it can wrap itself around just about any claim or set of claims, no matter how complex. That’s not to say that it’s easy to defend those claims, but a portfolio can open the door to evaluating certain skills that are closed to other forms of assessment. This is especially useful to the growing number of schools and districts that are publicly committing to teaching deeper learning skills, often in the form of a graduate profile. It’s hard to design a test of creativity or collaboration. But it’s not hard to imagine a student assembling evidence of her creativity or collaborative abilities into a portfolio.
  • A portfolio actively enrolls the student in the assessment in ways that other forms of assessment cannot. Because a portfolio represents a subset of a body of work, it requires choices. The photographer doesn’t show you all the photographs he’s ever taken; he presents a curation of his photographs. And every one of those choices is an opportunity for making meaning, deepening understanding, and practicing persuasion.

The flip side of each of these virtues is a vice, or bad habit, of portfolio design:

  • A portfolio’s validity breaks apart when its claims are not crystal clear to all involved. I have witnessed situations where some portfolio reviewers were looking for evidence of proficiency and others for evidence of growth. When the portfolio’s purpose is not sharply defined and collectively understood, the whole endeavor can feel like an unrigorous waste of time. The portfolio idea unnecessarily takes the blame. Similarly, teachers need to calibrate their understanding and use of assessment tools, so that students are being evaluated with consistency.
  • A portfolio is hardly a portfolio if the student is not able to make choices about what goes into it. This happens when the portfolio’s parameters are so prescribed there’s no room for choice, or the student hasn’t had enough opportunities to practice the skill. To get the cognitive benefits of curation, students must have a range of work from which to choose. As a teacher, I appreciated this collateral virtue of portfolio assessment: it pushed me to provide my students with more opportunities to produce work so they could make choices down the road. Surprise, surprise--the students got better faster.

A final tip: Apply portfolios to skills that are valued but insufficiently assessed. Already institutionalized measurements such as test scores and grades are practical and they tell us a lot, but they don’t tell the whole story. Take advantage of the flexibility of portfolio assessment to get at those other important but often neglected skills of deeper learning, including solving complex problems, working collaboratively, communicating effectively, and learning how to learn. Portfolios will seem superfluous--to teachers and to students alike--if they only tell us what we already know.

If you’d like to see defense in action, here are a couple options: Yvonne’s video includes interviews with her teachers, as well as clips of Yvonne preparing for, delivering, and reflecting on her senior defense. Tarshae’s video contains a significant portion of her entire defense. Both demonstrate the power of defense and can help educators imagine their own students learning and growing through Portfolio Defense.

Interested in learning more? Come to a Defense Design Studio this Spring and see students defend and prove they are ready for the challenges of college.

Related Tags:

The opinions expressed in Learning Deeply 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.

Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Evaluating Equity to Drive District-Wide Action this School Year
Educational leaders are charged with ensuring all students receive equitable access to a high-quality education. Yet equity is more than an action. It is a lens through which we continuously review instructional practices and student
Content provided by BetterLesson
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Well-Being Webinar
Attendance Awareness Month: The Research Behind Effective Interventions
More than a year has passed since American schools were abruptly closed to halt the spread of COVID-19. Many children have been out of regular school for most, or even all, of that time. Some
Content provided by AllHere

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Assessment Spotlight Spotlight on Assessment in 2021
In this Spotlight, review newest assessment scores, see how districts will catch up with their supports for disabled students, plus more.
Assessment 'Nation's Report Card' Has a New Reading Framework, After a Drawn-Out Battle Over Equity
The new framework for the National Assessment of Educational Progress will guide development of the 2026 reading test.
10 min read
results 925693186 02
Assessment Opinion Q&A Collections: Assessment
Scores of educators share commentaries on the use of assessments in schools.
5 min read
Images shows colorful speech bubbles that say "Q," "&," and "A."
Assessment Standardized Tests Could Be in Jeopardy in Wake of Biden Decisions, Experts Say
Has the Biden administration shored up statewide tests this year only to risk undermining long-term public backing for them?
6 min read
Image of a test sheet.