Portfolio Assessments: A New Look at Student Metrics

Portfolio Assessments: A New Look at Student Metrics
By: Sherry Mohr

Imagine standing before a panel of faculty. Each one has a list of questions and a booklet of information. This booklet contains information that you wrote. It’s your senior thesis. You’re standing before this panel to defend it so that you can graduate…from high school.

Yes, you read that correctly. High school.

Los Angeles High School for the Arts (LAHSA) has started a pilot program in which their seniors take part of a portfolio assessment. Seniors have 45 minutes to present on three “artifacts:” one academic, one artistic, and one personal. They have to explain their research process, obstacles faced, the ways they overcame them, and how the skills learned will help with the their future. Upon completing their defense, the seniors must answer questions from their panel. The panel consists of the school’s assistant principal, a school coordinator, and a former student.

Reporter, Brenda Iasevoli, witnessed a student’s defense firsthand. Here’s a look at some of her observations:

“Magana stepped outside the classroom while the panel evaluated his performance. The judges agreed his presentation skills were solid: he made eye contact, he knew how to hold the audience’s attention, and he was organized. But he failed to demonstrate content knowledge and sound research skills. Assistant principal Matthew Hein pointed out a “classic bad research move,” Magana’s admission that he “dismissed research that didn’t fit his opinion.”

The verdict: Magana would have to rewrite the policy memo and defend his work again.”

The student passed the second time around, but Cathy Kwan, the school’s coordinator for the program, has found that students have yet to take the program seriously. LAHSA was in its second year of this program when Iasevoli observed the process. Kwan is still struggling with defining a standard and meaningful assessment of the student portfolios. The school is still in the process of including the portfolio assessment as a graduation requirement.

Iasevoli provides a well-rounded review of other schools conducting portfolio assessments and what that means as a form of student achievement metrics. Magana didn’t realize his research methods were lacking until the panel reviewed his work. It was then that he was able to synthesize the information better and build a more solid argument. Iasevoli interviewed one of the LAHSA teachers who, at first, argued against this pilot program. She writes,

““When you see your students reflect on what they’ve learned, and see how that learning has affected them, it’s hard to say this isn’t a good idea,” says Isabel Morales, a 12th grade social studies teacher. “Watching the defenses taught me how much my lessons count, how crucial it is for me to provide a transformative learning experience for my students.””

Kwan plans on including teachers in the program’s training.

This article really strikes me. We focus so much on student engagement and facilitating learning experiences for our students, and yet, we push our students off to college in hopes that they understand what it is to think critically and synthesize information. Sure, we conduct our own forms of assessment through quizzes, essays, and tests, but is that enough?

I don’t think so. At least, not anymore.

I think it’s important to start younger than the high school level. Students should start learning how to think critically at the middle school level…even at the elementary school level.

You’re absolutely right, but there are ways we can design our instructions to scaffold this process. Kids become bored with worksheets, and do not retain the information. There is no transformative learning with worksheets. I believe that worksheets are still important, but students, especially at the elementary school age, deserve more than that method of instruction. I remember the fifth grade fondly because my teacher facilitated student-led active learning. To learn about the economy, we created a marketplace. Each student had his/her own store, and we learned about supply and demand, cost effectiveness, and money management. We also staged a mock Salem witchcraft trial, and every student played a role. I remember that piece of history very well because I “lived” it. My learning had transformed into active knowledge of the material.

I commend LAHSA for starting this program, and I really hope it becomes a graduation requirement. I know students already have tons on their plates at that age, but the knowledge, skill, and insight gained from defending your portfolio will last a lifetime. I hope more schools use LAHSA as an example and create similar programs.