Part I: Developing Student Self-Assessment through Portfolios
During my high school experience, portfolio practice was sticking all graded work in a folder and passing it from teacher to teacher until graduation when it was finally put to rest somewhere unknown to me. In fact, as a student I never saw "my portfolio." I just knew it was out there and hopefully (maybe/maybe not) being looked at. Now as a future teacher, I know this folder, although called a portfolio, was not at all what the word signifies.
The use of portfolios in the classroom was borrowed from the art world in which they were used by artists to show their best, most representative work to evaluators (Smagorinsky, 127). By focusing on production processes, portfolios challenge conventional evaluation methods that stress few grades only on end products. By evaluating the steps along the way, students are able to experiment without fear of being reprimanded for mistakes. A lot of times, in a traditional teacher assessed classroom, students will only write what they know is correct. A teacher needs to be able to also read what is not written. Paying attention to what they don't write can sometimes tell you more than their mistakes. Students will many times stick to what they know best and not experiment. By being aware of what types of writing they do not attempt or techniques they fail to use, a teacher can help them grow in their writing. Having all their work in a portfolio enables a teacher to compare their work and reflect on what they have done through out the year. By assessing individual assignments over a period of time links can be overlooked and past comments can be forgotten. A portfolio allows a student to see themselves as writers instead of producers of writing assignments.
Although portfolios look different from school to school and class to class, there are underlying assumptions that create the foundation for all portfolio work. Smagorinsky claims a portfolio approach assumes students:
Learn through errors.
Require time to develop skills.
Are involved in learning processes as they work toward end product.
In this inquiry I am going to focus on the learning process of self-evaluation as developed by participating in portfolio work. I will examine the use of portfolios as a way to develop a student-centered approach to assessment. Never having had any participation with self-assessment in the classroom I wonder what it looks like, what its benefits are, and if it is practical.
In Portfolio Assessment in the Reading-Writing Classroom, Tierney and co-authors propose a move from complete teacher assessment to student assessment by incorporating portfolios into the curriculum. If one of your goals as a teacher is to create life long learners, then students need to learn how to evaluate themselves. This is not to say teachers have no part in evaluation, but as Glasser says they are not the "boss". Portfolio assessment is geared to empower teachers and students as well as parents. All three are to have a share in the process, but the ultimate control is in the hands of the student.
Creating a portfolio practice in your classroom that insists on students to act as authors and owners of their work is the first step to develop self-evaluation. By having a sense of ownership, students are involved in all the decision-making including the criteria. A teacher and student work together as partners to establish goals. This allows criteria to emerge from the student. There is no more playing school where a student tries to figure out what the teacher wants. With portfolios, assessment is one of the learning goals not an outcome (Tierney, 25). It is important when a teacher conferences with a student he/she does not go in with preset criteria; instead one should act as an informed questioner letting the child lead the conference. According to Tierney, "Decisions are guided by the child's agenda, by being aware of the individual's needs, academic goals, and personal concerns." The process of talking through one's ideas, goals, and concerns with someone else is an act of self-evaluation.
Even though students are involved in self-assessment when they plan, add and subtract to, arrange, and show their portfolios they may not always value the same things a teacher does. In the beginning especially, students have a hard time assessing beyond if they like the piece or not. There are different things a teacher can do to insure a rich portfolio without taking away ownership.
In order to get a range of materials, it is important to discuss its importance with the student ahead of time when he/she is planning. If a child is very good at poetry and the bulk of his work is poems, allow him to start a poetry section or a separate poetry portfolio, but explain the need to try all different kinds of writing. If students are free from grades at every turn they are more likely to try these new things without fear of it hurting them academically. Even if talked about students still may need help in selecting items or deciding what kind of piece to write. This is where the teacher needs to negotiate with the child.
Teachers may also want to keep their own portfolio on each child that includes notes from conferences and pieces rejected by the student, but liked by the teacher. These portfolios can easily be used as both academic and behavioral progress reports.
Portfolios can also be arranged so they have a prescribed section that must meet certain guidelines, but does not take away from the freedom in the rest of the portfolio. Although this seems useful, I would argue that a child would pick up that this section is the more important and devote the most time to it even if not desired. I think it takes away from the student's ownership of their work. I would either keep a separate file or negotiate with the child on what to include.
Once ownership is established students begin to evaluate themselves on their own terms instead of external ones. Too often grades are viewed as competition, and portfolios too can be seen in this light if not handled properly. Even though portfolios can be adapted to any form of grading, its nature is to move away from letter grades to a reflective narrative (Tierney, 13). When evaluations mention strengths as well as weakness, they mean more to the student than a letter. If a letter grade must be used in the school, it should still be backed up by some sort of narrative report. Students when evaluating themselves do not just assign a grade; they must reflect and reason, so should a teacher.
The very nature of the selection process involves students in an informal type of self-evaluation. This type of informal evaluation goes on through the whole process, becoming more complex as time goes on. Another form of informal evaluation is to have peer evaluations. Tierney suggests that after students and teacher negotiate the number and kinds of material that will go into their portfolio, time must be given for students to share with one another their work. By supporting their choices and listening to the opinions of others, students become more reflective and often see things overlooked before. Peers have a lot of influence on one another and can be useful tools when it comes to the selection process.
Peer evaluations as well as self-evaluations can be formal as well as informal. A teacher can provide guiding questions that must be answered or a checklist to be filled out. Tierney warns against too structured of a procedure, because his research shows students become tired of completing formal evaluations (114). If these forms are to be used, they should be tailored to the class context and not be simply taken as an all-purpose formula. He suggests using note cards, journals, or logs. Attached to each selected piece is a note card describing why the student chose it. Learning logs are lists kept up periodically, detailing what has been learned and their plans for the future. Journals can be used in the same way they are for reading and writing. With portfolios a student can keep a reflection journal which illustrates their day to day experiences. These journals may be private with only a select amount to be copied and shown to the teacher or the complete journal may be turned in.
Now that I have read how portfolios are to be handled theoretically, I would like to examine how they are used in a real classroom. Once I enter State College High, I want to examine how they use portfolios. I want to see if there is a move away from teacher assessment toward student assessment. Do students have a voice in the criteria? Is self-assessment a goal? If so is it informally and/or formally checked? What do formal evaluations look like? How do teachers evaluate portfolios? These are some of the guiding questions I would like to explore once in the school.