Portfolio Assessment Research Paper

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Portfolios have been around for a long time, showcasing the work of artists for example. In education, however, discontent with standardized tests and other traditional assessment measures led to experimentation with their use for assessing student achievement in school classrooms. Although this movement was brewing for a while, it took off in the mid-1980s. Shortly thereafter, experimentation with portfolios spread to large-scale assessment purposes tied to school reform efforts. This usage peaked in the early to mid-1990s, and then waned as the current accountability movement grew.

There are many definitions of portfolios. One that has become somewhat standard is the definition developed around 1990 by the Northwest Evaluation Association. A portfolio is a purposeful collection of student work (both purpose and clear criteria for quality work should be stated) that includes student involvement in its construction and student reflection on its contents (Arter & Spandel, 1992). This definition distinguished portfolios, as this research-paper will use the term, from weekly folders or other collections of children’s work that teachers or parents have always saved from refrigerator door displays and the like. Portfolio assessment requires intentional student reflection. That reflection should be at least implicit in the selection of work. Preferably, reflection should be explicit, with reflection tags, work logs, or essays included in the collection.

The underlying purpose of portfolios is to make meaning from evidence. The power of the method lies in the presence of student work for review. Assessment of the quality of student work is right there next to the evidence, making for a fuller, richer description than a score or grade noted in a spreadsheet. In addition, students are more involved in interpreting the evidence of their own progress in portfolio assessment than in testing, or even in teacher-graded performance assessment. Portfolio assessment can be very learner-centered.

Although various authors have developed many categories and labels, there are two general types of portfolios. A showcase or best work portfolio contains evidence of the level of student achievement of intended learning targets; that is, it illustrates what the student can do, not how he or she arrived at that point. A growth, learning, or process portfolio, as it is variously called, contains evidence about students’ learning processes. The classic of this type is the writing portfolio that includes several drafts and comments for each piece or a collection of pieces that shows improvement over time, as subsequent pieces show more developed skills than early pieces.

In either case, the presence of the student work itself, and not just a grade or even narrative comments, is what makes the portfolio unique. For anyone, reviewing the evidence allows a deeper, multifaceted understanding of the achievement. Especially for younger children, whose reasoning is aided by concrete examples, being able to see progress or achievement goes further toward helping them understand it than reviewing a list of grades or scores alone. Portfolios are touted for encouraging this kind of review and developing the lifelong learning skills of self-regulation and self-evaluation.

At least two related underlying stances can be found in the literature written when portfolios became popular. Some authors were interested in their use because of an interest in authentic assessment. Authentic assessment in this sense means using assessment tasks that are more like real work than are traditional tests. Doing and reviewing one’s own work, and reflecting on one’s own learning, are things that educated people need to do in future schooling and in life. A second argument for portfolio use is related. Some authors wrote about the power of portfolios to harmonize curricular goals, instruction, and assessment (sometimes called assessments worth teaching to). The argument was knowing that portfolio assessment will be used will encourage a different type of teaching than knowing that a test will be used. In this argument, portfolios were a tool for school reform.

Portfolios do entail some intentional merging of assessment and instruction. Even if the portfolio’s main stated purpose is assessment, class time is usually devoted to constructing the portfolios: selecting the pieces to include and reflecting upon what they mean. The ways in which this is accomplished vary widely, but in all cases require intentional review of learning goals, consideration of the criteria for quality work, and some sense of what has been learned and what still remains to be done. This is, of course, a description of learning as much as it is of assessment. At least, using class time to construct portfolios requires planning and intentional incorporation into lesson time. At most, teachers can use the act of constructing a portfolio as part of instruction itself.

The range of types of portfolios is broad. The two general categories—for showing best work or for showing growth and learning over time—play out in many ways. Portfolios began in the arts but have spread to other subjects, and there is now a sizeable portfolio literature in reading, mathematics, science, and other subjects.

Portfolios vary in time span according to their purpose. Some elementary schools, for example, experimented with portfolios that began in first grade, covered all or most subjects, and followed students through the years until their graduation from the school. Some districts experimented with portfolios that would travel with students from elementary to middle school or middle school to high school (in one subject or in several), in hopes of giving future teachers a more nuanced understanding of the students they received. Other portfolio projects are subject-specific, contained within one year and classroom. Still others are narrower in scope, tied to a particular unit or subset of curricular goals.

Finally, portfolios vary in the ways they are used. Portfolios that serve purely formative purposes may be evaluated with teacher-student or peer conferences. Most classroom portfolios in the United States, however, serve at least some summative function and are scored in some way. Usually portfolios are scored with rubrics that describe the level of quality on various predetermined criteria, either for the portfolio as a whole or piece-by-piece. Sometimes the criteria are developed jointly by the teacher and students.

In addition to their value for fostering individual learning habits, portfolios have value because of the interactions they can sustain. Again the operative piece here is the availability of the evidence (the student work) itself, which focuses student, teacher, and parent communication over evidence. As the student interacts with the work, the learning is reified; that is, it becomes a concrete thing that gives students, teachers, and parents something to talk about. Communication about student achievement using portfolios can occur informally among students or between students and teachers. Portfolios are also used formally as the basis for all kinds of conferences, student-student (e.g., peer editing), student-teacher (e.g., conferencing with individuals about their work during class), and parent-teacher or student-parent-teacher. Some schools or classes that make portfolios a major component of their work have portfolio celebrations—open-house-like events that are part class presentations and part social.

Portfolios raise several issues of ownership. Student involvement can range from minimal (or nonexistent, for those who are willing to call it a portfolio without student involvement) to all-encompassing. One ownership issue is who gets to say what goes in the portfolio. Teachers often require certain items or devise a framework within which students must work (specifying, for example, at least two of a certain kind of piece must be included but allowing the students to select which two). A second ownership issue is the question of whose work the portfolio represents. Unlike on-demand, closed-book tests, most classroom assignments scaffold student performance in some way. Materials are provided, directions are given, sometimes collaboration with other students is allowed or encouraged, and teacher assistance is available. Thus the picture of student achievement illustrated by some portfolios is a picture of what students can do within the structure of a particular classroom environment. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing depends on the purpose for which the portfolio is to be used. A third ownership issue is who owns, and keeps, the portfolio—the student, the teacher, or the school.

Research has been done on the effects of classroom-based portfolios. Evidence about their effectiveness on achievement measured by more conventional tests is mixed. Evidence about the development of student self-regulation and self-assessment skills, and about dispositions among students who used portfolios is a little more consistent. Classroom-based portfolios used for formative purposes and integrated with instruction do tend to foster these qualities.

Thus far, the discussion has focused on classroom-based uses of portfolios. To reiterate, portfolios became popular in a time when large-scale accountability was a growing concern, but before the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 that centralized accountability requirements.

During the 1990s, many felt that using portfolios as part of large-scale assessment would motivate a kind of school reform that would help students develop the complex knowledge and skills needed for 21st-century life and work. This led to some notable projects, many of which are no longer in place.

Research has largely concentrated on portfolios’ reliability and validity for accountability reporting and decision making. The overall conclusion supported by studies of both classroom-based and large-scale uses of portfolios is that portfolios are better for classroom purposes than for large-scale purposes. They are better for formative assessment purposes than for summative purposes. And they are best when they are used intentionally as part of both instruction and assessment. These, of course, are generalizations. A few specific portfolio projects are exceptions. These general findings, however, are useful to teachers who are considering using portfolio assessment in their own teaching. Classroom formative uses of portfolios are very powerful tools for both instruction and assessment.

Brief History of the Movement

Calfee and Perfumo (1996) reported that the earliest reference to writing portfolios they could find in ERIC was a report by Sweet (1976), and the portfolio described was a one-page checklist. In the late 1970s and 1980s, portfolios were discovered and became so popular that they were used for all sorts of things, whether they were the most appropriate assessment for the purpose or not. Portfolios arose out of a search for assessments that would encourage lifelong learning skills and student responsibility. They arose during a time of school reform where one of the objectives was to encourage complex thinking and student ownership and agency regarding their work. Portfolio projects began to spring up in classrooms and schools, and writing portfolios were a special case, because of the natural fit between portfolios and the writing process. A growing emphasis on the writing process, instead of just the finished product, and the founding of the Bay Area Writing Project in 1972 and the National Writing Project in 1974, demonstrated the advantages of portfolio assessment.

Portfolios spread because of their potential to tap the higher-order thinking and problem solving that educators were realizing needed more attention in subjects besides writing. Portfolio projects became a popular vehicle for teacher collaboration in the same spirit of reform. Many of these small projects worked well and became a vehicle for communication among teachers and between teachers and students. Very quickly after portfolios began to develop a following as a productive classroom assessment method, educators began wondering if the benefits of portfolios would scale up to support school reform via their use in large-scale assessment.

In 1988 the state of Vermont began the development of a statewide portfolio assessment system. Vermont had not had a statewide assessment system and hoped that using portfolios for large-scale assessment would promote student’s reflection skills and avoid some of the pressures that large-scale standardized testing programs can bring. Other states have experimented with portfolios in some form, most notably for writing assessment, but Vermont was the only state that based its state accountability reporting mostly on performance-based, nonstandardized tasks.

The Vermont portfolio assessment program yielded extensive evaluation and produced a lot of literature about portfolio scoring and use of portfolio scores for high-stakes purposes. A major finding was that portfolios did not meet the requirements of reliability of scoring sufficient for the reporting purposes Vermont intended. Different scorers did not agree sufficiently on the quality of portfolios scored with rubrics. Because of the low reliability, validity evidence was difficult to interpret (unreliable measures may have low correlations with other measures of interest simply because of unreliability), but in general, Vermont writing and mathematics portfolios were not related to other measures of writing and mathematics. In addition to its technical problems, the Vermont portfolio assessment program was expensive.

For all these reasons, Vermont no longer uses a portfolio assessment system. The state of Kentucky, however, also an early experimenter with state-level portfolio assessment, still uses a writing portfolio. The state’s original interest in portfolios came as part of an educational reform movement. Like Vermont, Kentucky intended that more performance-based assessment systems would avoid some of the pressures of large-scale standardized testing (narrowing of the curriculum and overuse of work sheets in instruction).

During this reform era in the early and mid-1990s, Maryland and California also experimented with assessment reform. The California Assessment Program (CAP), a writing assessment program, influenced writing instruction and assessment, particularly in secondary schools, in the late 1980s. It was replaced with the California Learning Assessment System (CLAS) in 1990. Both of these programs featured open-ended, authentic tasks and included portfolios as part of their design. Political changes and public pressure ended these state-funded experiments with assessment reform in 1994. The attempt to go “beyond the bubble” (the expression used in California to mean going beyond standardized tests and their bubble-in answer sheets) had ended.

Thus, beginning in the late 1980s and peaking by the mid-1990s, portfolios were tried as part of large-scale state assessment but found unreliable in the classical sense. Standardization was one of the main issues. Making portfolio tasks more standardized tasks makes for more reliable scoring, but that misses some of the point of using a portfolio in the first place. Training a large enough pool of raters was another issue, and so was cost.

During this same period, several funded research and development projects experimented with the development of portfolios. Harvard’s Project Zero was associated with the Arts PROPEL and APPLE Projects. Arts PROPEL was a joint project with the Educational Testing Service and the Pittsburgh Public Schools. It focused on student learning in three aspects of the arts: production, perception, and reflection. Portfolios became one (of two) ways to document the creative process. Arts PROPEL had somewhat more success with reliability of portfolio scoring than did the state of Vermont, but within this purpose of arts assessment. The APPLE (Assessment Projects and Portfolios for Learning) Project was a more straightforward investigation of what was required for the ongoing implementation of portfolios in schools, for evaluating both programs and individual students.

The New Standards Project was a joint research and development effort of the National Center on Education and the Economy and the Learning Research and Development Center at the University of Pittsburgh. The New Standards Project, true to its name, developed both a set of benchmarked performance standards for elementary, middle, and high school students and the means to assess them. This project is still running and has resulted in the publication of standards for student achievement and portfolio tasks and rubrics that are available for purchase.

How to Design a Classroom Portfolio Assessment

Portfolio assessments are quite varied; however, it is possible to describe the basic steps for creating a portfolio assessment system in a classroom. For both learning and best-works portfolios, the first thing to do is identify the purpose for the portfolio. That purpose should include the classroom learning targets and curriculum or state goals it will serve, whether the purpose will be formative (learning) or summative (best-works), and the audience (who will be the users of the portfolio system—who creates and who gets the information and for what uses). Possible purposes include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • formative assessment—as a vehicle for student reflection and teacher feedback, for diagnosing student needs and planning next steps, for informing instructional planning;
  • summative assessment—of student accomplishment of learning goals, including grading;
  • program evaluation and/or accountability reporting;
  • communication—as a vehicle for communicating with parents, or with future teachers.

At this point, one possible decision is that a portfolio is not the most appropriate assessment method for the purpose. If it is appropriate, continue with the following steps. Specify in greater detail exactly what achievement dimensions the portfolio will assess. This specification includes the content from the learning goals but also extends to the cognitive complexity, reflection and self-regulation skills, or dispositions or habits of mind desired as the focus of portfolio evidence. Because portfolios are a big undertaking and require significant investments of student time and effort, portfolios should assess important, central learning goals that require complex thinking and involve tasks that are meaningful to students. Portfolios are not a good way to assess routine knowledge or recall of facts.

When these foundational issues have been decided and written down, more practical planning for portfolios should follow. Plan the organization of the portfolio, defining for example how many and what types of entries will be needed to give evidence of student content knowledge and cognitive process for intended use of the information. Several pieces of completed writing in different genres would establish student achievement of writing standards, for summative evaluation and grading. Sets of drafts of individual papers at various stages throughout the writing process, at the beginning, middle, and end of the year, would be more useful for student reflection on how he or she was developing as a writer.

Plan who will decide what goes in the portfolio, the timing of those entries, when and how individual pieces will be evaluated, how the portfolio will fit into classroom routines, whether there will be conferences associated with portfolio use, who may see the contents of the portfolio, who owns the final contents, and so on.

Then plan the scoring or evaluating of the portfolio. For solely formative use, evaluation may be entirely by feedback and conferencing. For most uses, rubrics of some sort will be used. Identify or create rubrics that describe performance levels on attributes appropriate to the portfolio’s purpose. For example, for a writing portfolio designed to furnish evidence of good use of the writing process, the quality of drafting and editing might be evaluated along with the quality of the finished pieces. For a writing portfolio designed to furnish evidence of finished-product writing quality, only qualities of the finished pieces might be evaluated. With or without rubrics, portfolios are also an excellent vehicle for teachers to give verbal feedback to students. Teachers can provide written feedback on the portfolio itself, or, especially for younger students, they can provide oral feedback using the portfolio as the focus of brief student conferences.

Holistic rubrics are used to evaluate the whole portfolio simultaneously. One rubric—one dimension with a set of quality level descriptions—is used. This type of scoring is quick to use and works well when the portfolio is used for summative purposes like a final grade. Analytic rubrics are used to evaluate the portfolio on several dimensions, each with a set of quality level descriptions. For example, a writing portfolio might have separate rubrics for content/ ideas, organization, style/voice/word choice, and mechanics. Analytic rubrics take longer to use than holistic rubrics because several judgments must be made. But they are better for giving feedback to students because they identify areas of strength and weakness.

Classroom portfolio scoring will often be done by only the teacher. The dependability of scoring can be checked by having another person cross-check a few portfolios. When double-scoring is used, there are two approaches to dependability. One is independent scoring, then calculating the percent of agreement. Another is a consensus approach, sometimes called moderation, where any disagreements are discussed and resolved. Keeping in mind the question, Would another person agree with this score? helps focus scoring even if there is no double-scoring. Use clear rubrics, consistently applied, as if the scoring was going to be checked against someone else’s.

The results of this planning process will be quite varied. Some portfolios have a cover sheet or entry log as the first entry that functions as a table of contents. Entry logs sometimes have space for other information; for example, the rationale for including the piece, the rubric score for the piece, or the date an entry was put in the portfolio. Teachers sometimes make up these sheets as a checklist, specifying two pieces of narrative writing and one piece of persuasive writing and so on, with space for the student to name the selections. Other portfolios are much less prescribed, with entries put in and removed over time as their usefulness expires. Such fluid portfolios are better suited to formative assessment.

Some portfolios are in sections; for example, literacy portfolios may have a reading section that contains a book log and a writing section that contains compositions. Some portfolios are rather unified, such as math portfolios with entries that demonstrate solution of a succession of different types of problems, each composed of paper-and-pencil work plus a reflection about the work’s strengths and challenges. Other portfolios represent a variety of work, like a science portfolio that includes unit tests, lab reports, photographs and essays about projects, and reflections.

The reflection methods in portfolios also vary. Some portfolios have student reflections on each entry, either on a separate sheet or on an attached sticky note. Reflections may be required responses to teacher questions (e.g., Why did you select this piece? What does this piece show about your learning?) or may be free-form. Formatted reflections sometimes even include multiple-choice questions (e.g., How satisfied are you with your work on this piece? with a list of choices). Usually, the teacher decides what kinds of reflections are required. Other portfolios have overall reflections, done as an essay written after the work is collected and placed either at the front or the back of the portfolio.

Implementation Issues, Dilemmas, and Barriers

Portfolios have developed a loyal following, but they have also raised issues. As noted, scoring reliability is one of these issues. The most frequently reported difficulty is time. Implementing portfolios well takes both a lot of planning and classroom time. Save portfolio assessment for occasions when its advantages specifically match the assessment purpose, so the time is well spent and portfolios are worth the investment.

Another barrier some teachers have reported is that using portfolio assessment has implications for instruction, so instruction has to be changed. This is particularly problematic if the instructional changes; for example, giving students control of selection and evaluation of some or much of their work, go against the teacher’s style of teaching or personal values. Self-reflection needs to be taught. Time needs to be arranged in classroom lessons for students to work on their portfolios. Resources and materials need to be arranged.

A final issue for portfolios is that they require teacher professional development. Many portfolio projects have a professional development component. There is a learning curve for teachers as they make portfolios part of their teaching repertoire. Teachers go through stages of development in their ability to use portfolio assessment skillfully. Experience is important for getting the most out of portfolios, for doing them well, and for not stumbling over the potential barriers.

Digital portfolios are attracting more and more attention. Electronic storage eliminates one of the barriers to portfolio implementation—storage space. Digital portfolios, however, share with other kinds of portfolios the purpose of driving content and plans for assessment. Clear learning goals are still central. Going digital doesn’t change that. Entries in digital portfolios can be constructed with the same building blocks that construct any electronic files, depending on their nature: word processors, digital still or video cameras, spreadsheets, presentation software, and the like. These files can be simply stored in a folder on a computer or, more and more frequently, are stored in portfolio software that allows for organizing the artifacts, storing reflections, and recording scores or teacher comments electronically.

Currently, software developers are marketing products that handle electronic portfolios, or e-portfolios. Typically, these software products allow for storage of student work in the form of electronic files and for scoring with rubrics. Some of these programs are Web-based. Some allow the students to keep their electronic files, some retain ownership for the school, and some allow access only with a current subscription. Beware of e-portfolio systems that claim to solve portfolio problems beyond electronic storage and convenience. Setting purpose, ensuring that portfolios are actually used as intended, identifying and using appropriate rubrics (if scored), and so on, require human judgments that are the responsibility of the portfolio system users.

Is a Portfolio an Assessment?

Is a portfolio an assessment itself or something else? Some, most notably Stiggins (2005), originally considered portfolios to be a communication method and not an assessment per se. He saw a portfolio as a collection of individual assessment information whose purpose was to communicate information about student achievement to teachers, parents, and students themselves. Thus he classified portfolios as a communication tool in the same toolbox as grades, narrative reports, and conferences.

The history of portfolios shows that they have been used as an assessment method, and most educators now consider portfolios an assessment method in their own right. The failed experiments with using portfolios for large-scale assessment certainly considered them as a method in their own right—treating them like tests (for example, standardizing tasks and directions) and using their results like they would any other assessment results for accountability and reporting. The classroom uses to which portfolios have been put, whether formative or summative, have also treated portfolios as an assessment in their own right.

Because of their nature, however, portfolios retain that overlap of instruction and assessment. They contain real examples of student work that can be reviewed, rediscovered, and reinterpreted—and those actions constitute a powerful kind of instruction. Thus while the consensus is that portfolios are an assessment method, they are unusual in that their construction allows them to float between instruction and assessment more easily than any other kind of assessment. Any assessment use (for example going over classroom test results) has the potential to inform and even become part of instruction. But portfolios take to this naturally.

Another difference between portfolios and many other types of assessment is the way they lend themselves to multiple interpretations. Of course any assessment results do that to some extent. Because of their history and nature, portfolios easily invite multiple interpretations. The original uses of portfolios, for artists and others to display their work, were not scored, but rather interpreted anew by each viewer. An architect reviewing a portfolio of interior designs might be appraising the designer’s ability to fit into one project or to work in one company. The same designer might show the same portfolio to a furniture manufacturer who reviews it to appraise the designer’s ability to fit into an entirely different project or job.

As portfolios migrated into classrooms and were adapted for school use, the purpose of the portfolio became defined by classroom learning targets. However they are called (objectives, goals, targets), learning targets are the basis on which classroom instruction and assessment are planned and are the building blocks for the curriculum that the classroom work serves. Thus school portfolios, now defined as purposeful collections of work, usually serve the central purpose of providing evidence and explanations of achievement of a set of learning targets. Even so, because student work is multidimensional, there are lots of other things to see in it. A set of papers that show a student has read and understood Hamlet, for example, might also show that the student has a good sense of humor, or can write particularly moving narrative prose, or makes a lot of punctuation errors, or any one of a number of things—large and small—that are not directly related to the stated purposes of the portfolio.

Studies have investigated the effects of portfolio use on instruction. There is some evidence that portfolios have an effect on instruction. Teachers often report that portfolios facilitate learning by encouraging students to look back at their work and see where they have been and how far they have progressed.

Studies have also investigated the effects of portfolio use on learning. There is some evidence that students who use portfolios regularly—in portfolio assessment systems that are well conceived and managed—increase their mastery goal orientation. That is, they learn the value of learning for its own sake. Of course, not every portfolio user becomes a self-regulated, self-evaluating, self-starter. But on average, portfolios can foster this kind of orientation over test-driven instruction and assessment.

Some studies have investigated whether students who regularly use portfolio assessment systems increase their achievement levels as measured by conventional standardized tests. These results have been mixed. It is not clear whether the reason for the mixed results is that portfolio use has no real effect on achievement or that standardized tests do not measure the kind of complex learning that portfolios develop.

The term portfolio culture has been used to describe a classroom environment in which, because of the use of portfolios, review and reflection about one’s work come to be valued. In such an environment, it is safe for students to describe both strengths and weaknesses of a piece of work. Assessment is seen as a repetitive process, with ongoing revision not only allowed but valued. This contrasts with a classroom environment that values getting good scores for everything (sometimes called a testing culture). Seeing errors or less than perfect work as an opportunity for learning or information for improvement is important to a portfolio culture, and it is also important for developing honest self-evaluation and self-regulation skills. The term is not used as much in current literature as it was in the 1980s and early 1990s. The formative assessment literature has picked up this thread for discussion, so the concept is still around.

Portfolio Stories

Perhaps more than any other kind of assessment, portfolio assessment has collected stories that have fueled the argument for their use and inspired loyalty among teachers committed to their use. This is not surprising—it follows from the learner-centered nature of the method. Dramatic and heart-warming anecdotes illustrate the power of portfolios and show that when it works, it works well.

Hebert (2001) tells the story of Tim, a second grader trying to explain to first graders how the portfolios they are about to begin making will help them learn:

He held out both pieces of writing—one in each fist—to the upturned faces of the first graders and simply said “See?” . . . his teacher asked Tim what he wanted the first graders to see. “Well,” he said, “there are more words on this page. I use upper and lower case letters here.” And as if just then realizing the difference between his first grade and second grade writing he simply added, thrusting one fist forward and then the other for emphasis, “This is words; but this is a story.” (p. 2)

Richard is a middle school student in a study by Underwood (1998, p. 185), who had thrown a tantrum when his first trimester portfolio was graded B instead of the A he wanted. At the end of the year, he wrote in his portfolio reflection: “. . . .you can see how this portfolio project has helped me understand literature. I’ve also found out a lot of things about myself as a reader this trimester, and what I’m interested in. I learned that when I’m challenged I’ll think of ways to understand things. . . .”

Lubell, quotes the final reflection of an academically successful high school student whose self-evaluation was a surprise to her:

What boggles me is that I remember being somewhat pleased with my original baseline. It is only now that I can read over it and see the true mess that it really is. For one thing, the whole thing lacked direction. My initial opening sentence did little more than state that I had read a story and a poem. . . . My final essay had direction; . . . my analysis of the two given works was much more advanced, both in organization and in presentation of argument. . . .

Lubell goes on to illustrate how portfolios can be equally powerful with students with special needs. All types of learners can benefit from portfolio assessment if it is well implemented, and they all have stories.

Current Uses and Future Directions

Portfolios have proven themselves to be effective for formative assessment. They have not proven themselves to be efficient, effective methods for large-scale assessment. Thus currently, and arguably into the future, the role for portfolios is and will continue to be primarily classroom-based.

Another current development in education is an increased awareness of, research on, and interest in classroom formative assessment. Classroom formative assessment (assessment for the purpose of giving students and teachers information they need to support learning) is just entering a period of discovery in the 2000s in the way that portfolios began their period of discovery in the 1980s. Both formative assessment and portfolio assessment are difficult to do well. If done well, however, formative assessment is a hugely effective support for student achievement and, at the same time, support for student motivation.

These two will probably join together in the future. Portfolios will become recognized as a specific and particularly effective method of formative assessment for certain kinds of learning targets. Developmental learning targets (long-term skills and abilities like learning to write or problem solving, for example) are well served by an assessment method that allows students to review work over time, reflect on what is being learned and what still needs to be done, and plan strategies for improvement (self-regulation). Mastery learning targets (like learning specific facts and concepts or specific skills) are less well served by this kind of assessment. Given the research and wisdom of practice that has accumulated about portfolios, it seems reasonable to predict that they will be less “used for everything” and more known as a recommended method for the specific use of formative assessment of developmental learning targets.

Another current development yet to be explored to its full potential is the way in which portfolio assessment can support development of student self-regulation, skills at asking questions, evaluation, and making decisions about next steps. This was one of the original reasons that portfolios were touted (see Wolf, 1989, for example), and it remains one of their biggest assets. Research has begun to demonstrate that this happens, and teachers are generally aware of this. A future direction will probably be the development of a repertoire of portfolio practices to intentionally foster specific kinds of self-regulation skills, along the lines of recommendations for practice that already exist about how to construct portfolios for specific intended academic learning outcomes.

No section on future directions of portfolios would be complete without mentioning writing portfolios. Writing portfolios may be the most authentic assessment—without even trying—because they are very close to what real writers actually do. Real writers plan, draft, edit, and review, then edit and review some more, whether or not there is a requirement to put such things in a portfolio. Writing portfolios are thus here to stay; they are and will remain an excellent vehicle for both instruction and assessment in writing.

Finally, portfolio assessment is still used in some places for three kinds of high-stakes decisions: for state writing assessments, for state alternative assessments, and for a part of district high school graduation requirements. Some states (e.g., Kentucky) use portfolios for statewide writing assessment for all students. Most states use one of three types of assessments for special education students eligible to use alternative standards of achievement and alternatives to the state test for No Child Left Behind reporting: portfolio assessment, performance assessment, or comprehensive rating scales of achievement. And some school districts use a portfolio as part of high school graduation requirements, often in conjunction with a senior presentation or project, with a review of grades, or with standardized test scores.

Portfolios in Teacher Education

Although this research-paper has been mostly about portfolios for K-12 education, it is worth noting that the use of portfolios in teacher education has somewhat paralleled the use of portfolios in K-12 education. Portfolios are used in three different ways in teacher education: learning portfolios, employment portfolios, and assessment portfolios. All are intended to show teachers’ practical knowledge and their reflection on their own professional development. Learning portfolios are used within courses or programs for formative assessment. Employment portfolios are used to show samples of student teachers’ work to prospective employers. Assessment portfolios are used as part of programs’ outcomes assessment and may be a requirement for graduation.

Similar things have been discovered for teacher education portfolios as for K-12 portfolios. They are more useful for classroom-based (that is, course or sometimes program) assessment than for summative assessment (for example, as a requirement for graduation). Research has shown that student teachers use their portfolios in at least two different ways. Some engage in genuine reflection for self-development. Others simply treat the portfolio as they would any assignment that carries a grade, and complete the requirements.

There are many programs that use teacher education portfolios as a graduation requirement and may delay graduation until all required work—including the portfolio—is in, but in no case of which this author is aware has any candidate been denied a teaching degree solely on the basis of an unsatisfactory portfolio. Because of the reliability issues involved in portfolio scoring, that would not only be a bad idea, it would probably not stand up to a legal challenge. Nor should it. The research findings on teacher education portfolios say similar things to the findings for K-12 portfolios. The main effectiveness lies in the insights that the teacher education students get from keeping them, not the information the teacher education faculty gets from the scores.


Portfolios have a long history in some disciplines, like art, but their use as a classroom assessment method began in the 1980s and was coupled with school reform efforts. Portfolios had a brief trial in the large-scale assessment arena, but it is now pretty well established that they are best suited—indeed are powerful tools—for classroom formative assessment. In certain cases, they can also serve classroom summative assessment. Their main asset is that they require student involvement, they compel student self-reflection, and they encourage student self-regulation as learners. These qualities in turn both support student achievement of school learning goals and also cultivate the habits of lifelong learning.


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