Brianna Hodges serves as the coordinator for innovative and digital learning at Eanes Innovative School District in Austin, Texas.
We’re at a breaking point in education. The focus on standardized assessments as the ultimate litmus for a child’s potential, a teacher’s efficacy, a school’s achievement and a district’s funding has shredded the very fabric of learning.
We find ourselves caught quite literally between a rock (the foundational tenet of our practice as learner-centered and learner-empowered) and a hard place (state and federal education policy mandates).
There is little dispute in the need for systemic and transformational change; we widely recognize the need to overhaul learning environment and provide a more personal, authentically connected learning experience. We cannot, however, expect significant changes in the classroom without addressing the measurements of learning outside of the classroom.
The 2015 passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) opened up new possibilities for how student and school success are defined and supported in American public education. Perhaps the most notable is increased state responsibility in designing and building state assessment and accountability systems.
Measure what matters
If we want our students to experience and develop creative and critical skills that will serve them far beyond our hallways, we must design assessments that allow for expression and demonstration. Standardized summative assessments gauge knowledge, whereas portfolios aim to measure what matters: the progress and process of learning.
Assessments, by nature, are meant to measure the progression of learning (Guskey, 2003). More so than demonstrating the ability to "neatly and darkly" fill in bubble sheets, students need the opportunity to show concrete application of knowledge and skill. Portfolios provide for comprehensive illustration of student performance. By making learning visible and connecting ideas across learning experiences, portfolios drive the practice of reflection, advancing higher-order thinking and helping students construct purposeful identities as learners.
Assessments tell a story. That story might be to the student, parent or district. That story might be to a college recruiter or to a learning specialist. In our world of 4D media, whoever is listening to that story, is wanting -- is demanding -- to experience it, not just see a grade on a piece of paper. A portfolio presents your entire technicolor learning experience and allows you to bring in and share all of your story.
Show what you know
Perhaps the most compelling argument for portfolios as the antidote to our assessment problem is to provide a more encompassing representation of the whole learner. Standardized assessments have repeatedly come under fire for countless cultural, racial and demographic biases. It is no secret that our learners of color and learners with multiple and differing abilities continually score lower on these assessments.
Portfolios offer the most significant opportunity to close the testing gap by providing a platform that houses each student's learning story, rather than a single snapshot. Pedulla et al. (2003) found that many teachers surveyed agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that, “Many students in my class feel, that, no matter how hard they try, they will still do poorly on the state-mandated test.” (p. 25) When students are able to demonstrate and celebrate their capabilities and competencies with multimedia-multimodal representations, we’re able to move from "try your best" to "show what you know."
Grow meaning from mindset
Learning is a process of progression. In fact, the very word "mastery" gives me pause. It can be tempting to turn portfolios into refrigerator art galleries, choosing the best of our projects and posting without reflection. This can contradict our intent by giving a false impression of completion. We often wax poetic on the merits of a growth mindset, yet we celebrate the moments of completion. What we measure is what is perceived to matter most.
As educators, we’re in the business of learning, not in the business of knowing. That said, through the inclusion of purposeful reflection, portfolios provide authentic application of growth and help us transform a mindset into meaningful practice.
Reflection becomes the catalyst to transform the tale of learning from a single volume to a true neverending story.
Further, by giving students a platform to articulate and explore creative expression and demonstration of learning, portfolios help crystallize growth as a skill set.
Competency- and/or inquiry-based assignments — such as designing a science experiment, preparing and presenting a business plan for a product they have designed, or making a video to illustrate the social justice ramifications of a political upheaval — provide a perfect opportunity for students to actively engage, invest and reflect in their own personal growth and learning pathway. Such tasks are designed for students to routinely reflect upon their process, making note of strengths, challenges and success points to better experience and author their own stories.
School of thought to world of possibilities
Our students struggle with the connection of curriculum beyond the classroom. "Why do we need to know this?" is a common refrain at best, and more often a defiant demand. By allowing assessments to more accurately reflect the real world, students are better positioned to leverage a variety of mediums and modes, including video, audio, image (e.g. hand-drawn, photographic, computer-enhanced graphics, 2D & 3D art mediums, etc.) and written text. Further, students will begin to recognize the natural connections that arise across all industries.
We know that our students are more than a test score. After all, no one plops down her SAT score and nothing more. Medical students seeking placement into residency undergo an interview. We don’t hire on GPA. We hire on demonstration and story.
As students transition to college and/or careers, portfolios allow learners to create, refine, and reference tangible evidence of competency and style, thereby transforming learning as process to learning as craft.
By substantially increasing the relevancy of our assessments, we’ll finally be able to solidify transformative learning, purposefully personalize the learning experience for every learner, demonstrate meaningful work, and more fully represent our tomorrows within our todays.
Every one of us has a story. If we’re going to say our students are more than scores, let’s show that with our actions. If we’re going to be about the whole child, then let’s see the learner for who he is, listen to the story he has to tell, and celebrate it in all its technicolor glory.