Print-based student portfolios have been used, misused, discarded, and reintroduced by many schools and districts over the past thirty years. Keeping track of students’ work, storing these collections, evaluating them, and using them to drive instruction has had its ups and downs in literacy education. Online and digital portfolios have been used with similar outcomes in elementary, high school, and college settings.
The biggest challenge for portfolio advocates is whether to apply normative or criterion-referenced standards for evaluating the contents of students’ portfolios by creating rubrics or other grading processes, or allowing individual students to use portfolios to document and demonstrate their learning and development over time. The second approach, a learner-referenced approach, has not been widespread in schools since so many assessment programs are designed to compare children to other children or schools to other schools.
Portfolios are collections of one’s work designed to provide opportunities to reflect on progress or change over a period of time. In most “real-world” instances, for example interior designers, architects, photographers, or artists, portfolios are used to demonstrate competencies and accomplishments. This type of portfolio is rarely scored using a rubric.
As the requirements for being proficiently literate (of course defining proficiently literate is problematic in itself) continue to expand and grow more complex in the digital age, the assessments we use to understand students’ abilities and performances need to expand as well. Portfolios and other performance assessments offer possibilities in this arena. For me, the challenge is not how to collect and evaluate portfolios but why to collect and evaluate portfolios. In my book, Classroom Reading Assessments (Serafini, 2010), I proposed three essential aspects of portfolio assessment:
1. Help teachers teach more effectively
2. Help students learn more effectively
3. Provide information for stakeholders
In order to do this, classroom-based assessments should: 1) utilize a variety of sources of information, 2) involve students in evaluating their performances, 3) focus on abilities, not deficits, 4) be conducted over time, and 5) respect the teacher as knowledgeable observer in the assessment process. There are ways of using portfolios as performance assessments that align with the above-mentioned criteria. Unfortunately, most designers and implementers of portfolio systems are too busy trying to scale-up or standardize what goes into the portfolio. More complex systems of evaluation will be needed to understand the complexities of student performances beyond the collection of artifacts or bubbling in answers on a standardized test.