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April 1, 1996
Vol. 53
No. 7

The Power of Portfolios

A valuable tool in student assessment, portfolios provide students the opportunity to see their progress and tell the stories of their learning.

Viewing children as competent is central to the way we assess children's learning at Crow Island School. In the past eight years, we have been able to strengthen the voice of children in the assessment process through the development of student portfolios.
To us, a portfolio is a chronological collection of a child's work over the course of one year. (Many of our students now have a six-year archive of portfolios.) I also keep a portfolio. A fundamental notion I have come to recognize is that for an observer to understand the significance of a portfolio, it's necessary for its maker to explain it. In other words, you need me to walk you through my portfolio because it is the story of my learning. Because I chose each piece, I know the significance of each and the sequence in which it should be viewed.
The same is true of our children's portfolios. In order to understand the portfolio, the child must present it. Although we work with our students to compile their portfolios, the children make the choices. We teach them how to assess the value of their work, and sometimes we tell the children to include a particular piece because we see the linkage between prior and present learning. But even though we make suggestions, we listen intently and react to the children's cues. Children have a natural ability to tell the story of their learning.

Portfolio Evenings

  • How has your writing changed since last year?
  • What do you know about numbers now that you didn't know in September?
  • Let's compare a page from a book you were reading last year to one you are reading now.
  • What is unique about your portfolio?
  • What would you like Mom and Dad to understand about your portfolio?
Teachers finalize the selection process by using "substantive conversations," discussions where they ask students: What are you good at? What do you need to work on? According to Fred Newmann of the University of Wisconsin, a substantive conversation is a "time for a child to express a view, an insight, or a connection between prior and present learning" with an adult responding to that view in a reflective manner.
Because we know that developing the metacognitive process in students, especially at a young age, heightens awareness and commitment to critical assessment of their learning, we encourage children to write about the specific details and context of a piece they are including in their portfolio. This helps a child go from the "I put this piece in my portfolio because I like it" stage to statements of more critical value.
We include older students in the process because we have learned that children best communicate the metacognitive process to one another. The older students provide wisdom and advice about what to save and how to organize a portfolio.

Portfolio Presentations

Recently, a group of 30 teachers from Chicago wanted to take a look at our children's portfolios. I asked 5th grader Laurie Schultz, who has been a student at Crow Island since junior kindergarten, whether she would review her archive with me. Excited, and slightly overwhelmed, she agreed. We met for a couple of hours to organize our presentation.
The first decision we needed to make was how to select items from her extensive archive. This is where the notion of "competent child" is important. This was Laurie's time to structure the conversation. I was careful not to impose an expectation by saying, "Let's find your best narrative writing from 2nd grade." Rather we looked at each portfolio individually. I waited to see which two or three items her eyes fell upon, then structured our conversation around those pieces.
Following are some excerpts from that conversation.
How do you want to begin?This is 1st grade. I enjoy writing a lot now. This piece is about friendship. It described friends and how you'd go down to the library and check out books. I had a lot of friends then and I still have a lot of friends.
Do you remember why you put this piece in your portfolio?I was in Mrs. Kappos's class and she really made our minds think and there were no boundaries to our imagination. You could just think and put it on paper. This was one thing I really enjoyed doing. I could describe what I felt. And this is me on Halloween. I was a pediatrician. I really enjoyed babies. You can see there's my doll—my favorite doll. I got it for Christmas. I used to bring it to school every day. I thought babies were the most amazing things.
Laurie talking about her 3rd grade portfolio:This is my time line—this is something I really remember making. This is my favorite time when I was growing up. It reflects a lot on my athletic talents. I made the Trevian Soccer team. This time line is something I'd like to continue.
Laurie talking about her 4th grade portfolio:This is reflective of my writing. This is the first time I'm getting very descriptive and I started putting a lot of time into my writing. That ending sentence was something I put in a poem I wrote in 3rd grade—one of my favorite endings.
Laurie talking about her 5th grade portfolio:This is recent work I'm doing. I'm doing my research report on premature babies. I'm going to have a very detailed exhibit that will show how you feed them.
What is it about this topic that interests you?For me, as I said before in 1st grade, I was curious about being a pediatrician, nursing, and just learning a lot about doctors and how they would take care of babies. And now that I had an opportunity to go back and revise my stuff, I found out I was very interested in babies and I recall that interest from 1st grade.
Will that affect some courses you take in high school?Yes. I think I'm going to become a nurse or a teacher. If I become a teacher, I'd like to learn more about this on the side.
Do you think your portfolio is an assessment?In a way it is very much an assessment because this archive shows how much I've improved over the years in school. The IGAP testing and the California Achievement Test are things in the now. My portfolio gives you a reflection of how well I've done and how I've improved.

Learning from Laurie

Laurie taught me a lot that day. I was amazed at how facile she was at remembering her archive. She could explain the sequence and significance of each piece in her portfolio. This conversation with Laurie will encourage our faculty to conduct similar conversations with students as we delve more deeply into the central and fundamental notion that children can tell their own stories of learning. Thank you, Laurie!
End Notes

1 F. Newmann, (February 199l), "Linking Restructuring to Authentic Student Achievement," Phi Delta Kappan: 458-463.

Elizabeth A. Hebert has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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