Using Portfolios to Enhance the Learning Process in High School

It is obvious that, in today’s United States, the system of standardized testing is becoming simultaneously “de rigeur” and “passe.” We have spent so many, many decades focusing on preparing students to pass the Big Tests that we have come to think of them as necessary. Now many states have adopted even more standardized tests for a variety of subjects, so that students are taking such tests every year from fourth grade onwards. Teachers complain that they are forced to “teach to the test” at the expense of more directly individual attention to students’ needs and abilities. Add this to the demands of in-school tests, and students become overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of one-size-fits-all assessment.

There is a better way. It is called portfolio assessment. It is certainly not as simple as standardized testing, and it is more time-consuming, but (properly guided) it yields results that are far more successful and, more importantly, indicative of real student achievement and retention of knowledge.

A portfolio is a project that spans the length of the course, be it a quarter, a semester, or a full year. As such, the teacher must have a very clear idea of what he or she expects from the students and be ready to communicate those expectations at the beginning of the course. The teacher must provide clear guidelines, such as a checklist or a rubric, as well as anticipated time lines for when each stage of the portfolio must be completed. Portfolios cannot simply be added-on at the last minute in May – in order for them to reflect real student achievement and to count as reliable assessment of learning, they need to be long-term pieces.

Portfolio assessment requires that students manage various portions of their work during the entire school year. Some English teachers ask students to write pieces specifically for the portfolio. Others ask students to choose their best work from each academic unit and reserve it to be revised and polished for portfolio inclusion at the end of the year. Each piece that goes into the portfolio would be accompanied by a brief descriptive paragraph and personal assessment by the student. Social Studies teachers may follow similar portfolio structures as English, perhaps providing personal responses to key information from each unit. Math teachers may ask their students to maintain certain exercise pages, each one accompanied by the student’s assessment (at the time) of the work and a later assessment (at the time of portfolio construction) to examine if the student’s understanding of the material has improved. Science teachers have the opportunity to include all of these methods as well as have students take photographs of each other conducting lab experiments for inclusion in the final product.

The final portfolio presentation may be simple (binders) or complex (a student who did a portfolio on the theme of death in literature presented the entire project in a papier-mache replica of a life-sized sarcophagus). Regardless of the presentation format, the students should be encouraged to make their portfolios unique. They should include personal observations, personal symbols, favorite colors…whatever it takes to truly make the learning experience their own. As a result, many students end up keeping their portfolios for years after the class is over…and they never forget what they learned.