Foundations and Assessment of Education/Edition 1/Foundations Table of Contents/Chapter 14/14.7.2

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Portfolio Assessment What it is and how it works

by Daysha Clark

Learning Objectives[edit]

After reading this article the reader should:

  • Understand what a portfolio is, and what it is not
  • Be aware of the benefits and concerns associated with portfolio assessment
  • Know basic guidelines for helping students build a portfolio

A Tale of Two Papers[edit]

See if this isn’t a familiar scenario: you work hard on a writing assignment, let’s say for a high school English class. You do your research, you write you five to seven pages, and you hand it in. That paper represents several hours of your life, and a good deal of new information absorbed and critical thought expended to present it all just right. You make sure you have the right number of sources. You double check that your citations are correct. You reread, and proof, and tweak until it’s just right. But once you’ve released that paper into the wild, all of that hard work comes down to one thing - the only consideration you will ever again take for that body of work is the number your teacher scrawls on the front cover – your grade. Beyond that, what do you do with it? The same thing the rest of us do - shove in a folder where it will wait for the year end locker-purge to be thrown away with a sizable stack of other work that’s been long since forgotten. It becomes merely a checkpoint to pass in the course of the year.

Let’s take that same assignment, but change the stakes a little. Let’s say when the red ink has dried and the frenzy of late-night composition has passed, you revisit your paper in a new context. You read it for its own sake. You read it as a product of your intellect. You actually determine if it’s any good. You question what you’ve really gained besides points for your average and some random information about the topic that stuck to your brain in the process. You decide why it’s good, you determine if it really does have your voice in it, you realize what could have been better. And then you take a minute to write a defense of your answers to all of those considerations.

The second paper, although it represents the exact same assignment and gross product, has now become much more. It’s now become a good candidate for a student portfolio.

So What's a Portfolio?[edit]

How they started[edit]

The portfolio concept originated with University of Massachusetts professors Peter Elbow and Pat Belanoff in the mid 80’s in response to dissatisfaction with procedures for scoring their department’s written exit exams. (Lombardi) The idea was that responses produced in response to fixed questions and assessed with simple numerical value did not yield an accurate representation of the student’s abilities and identity, only a desired response to an exercise meant solely for summative assessment. Portfolios began as a refined version of the stack of paper mentioned earlier, a collection of student work that was determined by the student to reflect the best of their progress and achievement. Over time, portfolios have evolved into eFolios or webfolios that showcase not only classroom work, but the activities and accomplishments outside of specific assignments that represent the growth and merit of the student.

What exactly is a portfolio[edit]

Paulson defines student portfolios as a collection of student work intended to illustrate the efforts, progress, and achievement of a student in either a specific area (creative writing) or across subjects, representing the student’s academic endeavors as a whole. (Paulson et al. ) Portfolios are meant to be a snapshot of the student, by the student. They’re a cumulative body of work that spans the school year that shows where the student started, where they are now, and the process in between. But they’re intended to be more than just an elaborate resume; they are an ongoing exercise in learning and evaluation. Portfolios, by their nature, are a complex portrait of the individual student that moves beyond averages and rank and into the realm of authentic student representation.

“[Portfolios] can become a window into the student’s heads for both staff and student to understand the educational process as the level of the individual learner.” (Paulson)

Anatomy of a Portfolio[edit]

What they are[edit]

Portfolios breakdown into two categories: the process portfolio, and the product portfolio. Process-oriented work demonstrates the growth of the learner over time, such as various drafts of a particular piece of work. Product-oriented portfolios focus on the best work of the student, the items that represent the highest quality created From demonstrating progress through selection of best works, the portfolio system provides new ways for students to exhibit what they have learned over time. (Lombardi)

Follow this link to see and example of a secondary-level student portfolio: Portfolio of Holly Totten, Kalamazoo University [1]

What they aren't[edit]

Barrett warns against confusing portfolios, which have multiple purposes, such as learning, assessment, and even employment-with assessment management systems, which are primarily used for formative and summative assessment. The true Portfolio is student-centered, with works selected by the student, whereas the assessment management system is institution or instructor-centered, with works prescribed by the institution (Barrett 2003).

What's in them[edit]

The criteria for portfolios tends to be loosely defined as a collection of elements representative of a student’s work. It is important that students determine these elements for themselves, as part of the purpose of the portfolio is not only to summatively assess the quality of the work, but to determine the individual student’s point of view. Criteria that are imposed on the student work will result in the students working to present what they feel is expected of them, rather than strive to present their own ideas about what pieces of their work are valuable and why, defeating much of the potential of portfolio assessment. (Benjamin-Cook)

Self-reflection - The Defining Feature of Student Portfolios[edit]

A defining feature of portfolios is the inclusion of a self-reflection. The self-reflection is a brief summary of the student’s own assessment of their work; it should represent not only assessment of the work itself and any relevant context, but assessment of the student themselves. What have they learned, where have they grown, and how these things are applicable beyond the classroom.

As a demonstration of self-assessment, the self-reflection becomes an assessable feature in and of itself. It demonstrated the students ability to evaluate for both context and content; it also highlights what the student considered to be of merit and why. These are important windows into understanding the viewpoint from which students are learning, and helps instructors evaluate if students are able to apply reasoning and synthesizing abilities to their own work in addition to possessing the knowledge and performance skills needed to create the work. This gives the portfolio the unique ability to simultaneously assess several levels of learning.

Self-reflection may be as open as allowing the student to comment as they see fit on their body of work, or may follow guidelines intended to evoke thoughtful comments on their collective achievements. For example, the following are suggested topics for inclusion in the self-reflections for portfolios compiled by students in a post-secondary teacher preparation program in the state of California, as presented by Lombardi:

  • 1. What insights about your teaching or student learning have you gained?
  • 2. How does the lesson, activity, or assignment allow you to make decisions about your eaching in the future, with increased understanding or pedagogical skill?
  • 3. How does the piece reflect what you value in your teaching practice? (Lombardi)

Follow this link for a sample self-grading tool for Penn State students: [2]

The Teacher's Influence on Portfolio Success[edit]

Also the concept of portfolios aligns with a progressivist educational philosophy, the role of the teacher in influence positive outcomes in portfolio compilation should not be underestimated. Paulson presented several suggested guidelines for instructors to bear in mind when implementing portfolio development and assessment:

  • 1. Portfolios should give the student the opportunity to learn about learning. End product must contain information that shows engagement in self-reflection
  • 2. Portfolios should be done BY the student, no TO the student. They represent a way for students to learn to value their own work, and in turn value themselves as learners. Therefore, students should be involved in selecting the pieces to be included.
  • 3. The portfolio should not become merely an accumulation of the students’ work; scores, grades, and samples of student performance on summative assessment tasks should not be a part of the portfolio, unless they add meaning or context to other work selected.
  • 4. The portfolio should convey implicitly or explicitly the student’s activities and attitudes; their rationale and intents(purpose for forming the portfolio and goals for its presentation), content (the actual work chosen for inclusion), standards (what they think is good or bad work and why), and judgments (what the collective contents communicate about the student)
  • 5. A valuable portfolio will function formatively during the year while it is being assembled, and summatively once it is complete. For example incomplete or unsatisfactory pieces may be included as benchmarks for progress in problem area, or to highlight goals for future work. The final product would include work only suitable for review and representative of the student’s best work. (Paulson)

What's So Great About Portfolios?[edit]

Lambdin and Walker (1994) find that students develop better self-assessment skills and become less reliant on grades when portfolio assessment is used. (Cook-Benjamin). Portfolios are also very versatile in that they are applicable a variety of skills and skill level, being found in elementary grade levels through the graduate level of secondary education.

Cook-Benjamin makes the following statement about her personal experience with portfolios: “I have found that they feel a sense of accomplishment in the completeness of the portfolio. They see the growth they have achieved and the areas in which they still need to improve. I have also found that students use the portfolio as a referral device in later classes, an act I have not observed with traditional assessments.” (Cook-Benjamin)

Stanford University's Lee Shulman, a leader in the portfolio movement: discusses five benefits in the use of portfolios: 1. Portfolios permit the tracking of longer episodes of teaching more effectively than single observations do. 2. Portfolios encourage important connections between process and product, through bridging what goes on in teaching with how it is manifested in portfolio products. 3. Portfolios institutionalize norms of collaboration, reflection, and discussion. 4. A portfolio introduces structure to the field experience and can be seen as a "portable residency." 5. Portfolios shift the responsibility for demonstrating learning back to the student teacher, as a participant rather than an observer. (Shulman 1998 qtd. in Barrett 2003, 4) (Paulson)

Henkin (1993) finds that the portfolio provides a holistic assessment that contributes to a valid measure of higher order thinking skills. According to Calvin (1993), when students are assessed using authentic materials such as portfolios, bias is reduced. Students also profit from the portfolio by becoming better evaluators and practicing self-reflection in their work (Cook-Benjamin)

The Trouble With Portfolios[edit]

Shulman also describes five dangers of portfolios:

  • lamination-A portfolio becomes a mere exhibition, an opportunity for self-aggrandizement, a chance to show off.
  • heavy lifting-Is all the hard work a portfolio demands really worth the effort?
  • trivialization-People document material that does not merit reflection.
  • perversion-Portfolio scoring systems might objectify portfolios to the point that the portfolios lose their ability to evaluate individual outcomes,
  • misrepresentation-Does the emphasis on best work misrepresent the candidate's work, so as not to be a true picture of competency? (Shulman 1998 qtd. In Barrett 2003, 3-4) (Paulson)

There are also concerns regarding who really is determining portfolio contents, the instructors or the students, and how the entity governing the contents of the portfolio impacts its validity as an assessment tool. (Cook-Benjamin). Assessment of the portfolios presents a problem as well – how can they be evaluated in a way that is reflective of the purpose of portfolios; is a rubric more appropriate, or a type of scoring method that yields a calculable grade? How can this progressive idea be meshed with the scoring methods currently present in many school systems? There is also the argument that portfolios are simply a waste of time. They are time-consuming to manage and maintain, and require large amount of effort, individual communication, and instructor input to develop and evaluate. Portfolios also create a storage issue due to their size, be it physical space in the case of paper portfolios, or internet bandwidth in the case of webfolios.



Cook-Benjamin, L. (2002). Portfolio Assessment: Benefits, Issues of Implementation, and Reflection on its Use. Assessment Update , 13 (4), 6-7.

Paulson, F Leon, Pearl R. Paulson, and Carol Meyer. (1991, February). What Makes a Portfolio a Portfolio? Education Leadership , 60-63.

Lombardi, J. (2008). To Portfolio or Not to Portfolio: Helpful or Hyped? College Teaching , 56 (1), 7-10.

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