Portfolio-Based Assessment

Portfolio-based assessment, is simply as the title says. Instead of grading students solely on standardized tests, unit tests and quizzes, a portfolio serves as a compilation of student work meant to show growth over time.  What are portfolios? "Portfolios are collections or samplings of information relating to each child’s developmental progress in an educational setting" (Huffman, P.) Therefore, the portfolio-based assessment serves as a way to keep track of student progress not only each year, but year to year throughout their public school career.  A school or classroom implementing portfolio-based assessments would collect various types of student work such as writing, art, photographs, class projects, and any other work that demonstrates student growth in the classroom.  At the end of the year, or even quarterly, it is the job of the teacher(s) working with that student to assess how far the student has come since the beginning of the year, and whether or not the student has shown enough learning progress to go on to the next grade level, or the next teaching quarter.  If a student comes into question, the teacher is to conference with the student and possibly give another chance to show growth in an alternative way.  It is the intention of PBA to equalize and individualize learning for all students, while also making learning and assessment relevant to the students' lives.


Although portfolio-based assessments (PBA) is a newer practice in schools, which teachers are more reluctant to try, the practice is making waves in education across the nation.  Fifteen years ago it was said, "Few movements in educational reform have grown so rapidly or attracted so much support from all quarters of American society as that of authentic assessment" (Goolsby, 1995). In schools across the nation, as well as internationally, PBAs have become the preferred choice of teachers who believe students cannot be assessed solely by written exams.  Although in the past five or so years we have seen a hard drive towards testing and EOGs, authentic assessment still remains in place in many classrooms. "The evidence suggests that a system of high-stakes examinations--even well-designed performance-based examinations--provides a flawed foundation on which to build a national educational reform movement"(Freedman). Therefore, schools and teachers must implement an assessment which is authentic and performance-based in relevance to the students' lives, as well as national standards. In fact, Marx (2001) is a strong supporter of portfolio-based assessments, due to the fact that the assessments lead to individualization and equality. 

Portfolio-based assessments "provide[s] a means for those students at risk for academic failure to demonstrate progress within a format less restrictive and inflexible than the traditional means" (Thomas, et.al., 2004). When we standardize our testing and assessment process in the school systems, we take away  all equality.  If a student is unable to read by a certain age they are deemed "lower-level" and therefore, possibly required to repeat a grade level or become tracked on the "lower-level track."  However, what if that student is a great writer? What if that student is a great speaker? What if that student is an excellent artist? Is it right for us as teachers and school employees, or citizens, to deem this child unable to perform simply from a low reading score or a poor EOG score?  Are we as citizens of the United States preparing our students solely for a test that determines our futures and in return insuring our ultimate downfall as a nation? According to Linda Darling-Hammond, "the tests generally do not reflect the actual tasks educators and citizens expect students to be able to perform, nor do they stimulate forms of instruction that are closely connected to development of performance abilities" (1994).  As opposed to standardized testing, portfolio-based assessments not only individualize student education, but they also seek to help teachers better their instruction.  If teachers are teaching to a test year after year, their instruction will eventually become rote memorization and standardized itself. However, if teachers are teaching to assess their students with a portfolio, requiring students to have many various types of work to demonstrate their understanding, in turn requiring teachers to teach using various methods leading to performance tests.  Overall, research in the field, suggests that if we are to succeed as a nation it is our duty to stop using standardized tests and move towards a more individualized performance based assessment, such as portfolio-based assessments.


Based on experience in various schools, progress towards portfolio-based assessments is at this time slow if anything at all.  Working in four schools, I have never seen a school which implements portfolio-based assessments the way they are suggested to be, as an alternative means to unit testing or yearly progress meters.  In one school, the teacher collected all student work in a folder which was subsequently sent home with the student at the end of the year, however this collection of work was never assessed.  If the portfolio is never assessed there is no point to collecting the student work, except as a means to show student participation.  If a portfolio-based assessment is to work correctly, student work other than tests and quizzes (writing, art, videos, photographs, projects) should be collected and assessed by all teachers involved in that students education at the end of the year.  This assessment, not a yearly test (EOG) should be used to determine whether a student passes to the next grade-level, or in which track a student is placed.

In a middle school setting portfolio-based assessments would include not only work from core classes, but also from exploratory or encore classes where the student has demonstrated growth.  In an ideal setting, the portfolios would stay with the student from year to year, so that at the end of the year the current teacher could review the last years work and determine how much growth the student had made in the current year.  The portfolio would also be used to determine whether the student is to remain on the current track or should be moved to a lower or higher track.  Although, tracking is not a best practice, it is a very widely implemented practice therefore it is something we as teachers need to make the best light of and using PBAs as a way to determine tracking is the solution to the problem.

Portfolio-based assessments, are a best practice that can work concurrently with Understanding by Design(UBD).  Using PBAs as a driving quarterly or yearly factor in student learning, teachers are more motivated to use formative assessments which are hands-on and experiential or project-based as opposed to direct instruction with an ending test. Therefore, teachers who use UBD and know their ultimate outcome/assessment is to be a performance piece for student portfolios, are more apt to begin with that outcome as the driving factor of their lesson plans.  An important part of UBD are essential questions in the classroom, EQs could be used in portfolios as a means of separating student work by sections. Students could choose a certain amount of pieces to put into their portfolio which would represent their understanding of that EQ and the themes related to the topic.  There are many possibilities for incorporating and weaving PBA and UBD together into any classroom.

Current Implementation Challenges

The most prominent challenge to fully implementing portfolio-based assessments is that of standardized testing.  Teachers question why they should have to assess students work if a standardized test can do the same thing in one single day.  Even, with the current dismay in standardized testing by teachers, I still do not foresee PBAs becoming the sole way to assess students. In order for PBAs to become the new national assessment for all students, the process of creating and assessing the portfolios would have to become standardized, leading us back to the standardization we seek to leave.  Implementing PBAs school-wide in a school that is test driven, as most in the USA are, causes serious resentment to PBAs because they are seen as an "add-on" to the high-stakes testing already in full-force.  Therefore, the main problem with PBAs taking root in schools is the resistance to have another add-on, as well as the drive of testing and the pressure it places on schools, teachers and students. Until national standardized testing is no longer a factor in schools, there will be trouble using PBAs.

Another problem with PBA implementation is the grading of a PBA by different teachers. If teachers are not trained in how to grade a PBA or how to assess a PBA, then how can it be proven they are correctly grading all students?  As  resultant conclusion, all teachers implementing PBAs would need standardized training on how to assess student growth based on the work samples included in the portfolio.  Teachers may also need training in how to assess different mediums of work such as videos, music, art, and any visual work. This is not to say that teachers are not "smart enough" to grade students on these works, but there are certain technical aspects of these mediums, that teachers will need to take into account when assessing student growth. For example, a student create a video using various angles to represent emotion of the characters, however if the teacher is not trained to notice the use of camera angles, they may not fully understand the depth and grasp of concepts on the student's part.

Although, there are numerous challenges to PBAs such as shortage of resources, school-wide mandates, and time constraints, I see the two aforementioned challenges as the most resounding. If we are to jump the hurtle of standardization in the school system and create students who are varied and multi-disciplined it is our job as teachers to use best practices like portfolio-based assessments that allow students to express themselves while also showing their learning progress.  As educators it is our not only our job to use best practices such as PBA it is our obligation for the sake of our students and teachers of the future.

Overall Thoughts

In conclusion, I feel as though portfolio-based assessments are something that I as a middle grades teacher should implement fully to the best extent possible. In order to accommodate all students from all walks of life, it is my job to provide students with varied opportunities to show their learning progress.  Accommodation is not giving all students the same test, accommodation is allowing students to complete different assessments based on their interests, in order to best measure how they learn and how much they have learned.  I think that currently, I am very negative about public schools in general and the push of standardized testing, and I think my way of coping with these poor practices is to embrace practices that I know are research based (i.e. PBAs) and I know are best for showing what my students have learned.  It is up to every teacher in every school to combat testing in their own way, and this is my way.