Professional Learning Writing Assessment

The Birth and Death of Portfolio Assessment

One by one the soon-to-graduate students at Buchanan High School in Clovis, California, file to the front of the room. As they read from what they consider the best work in their portfolios, they beam with pride. Today is Senior Showcase Portfolio Day.

Sadly, however, Senior Showcase Portfolio Day is all too aptly named. Through no fault of the student readers, this event has become a show, a kind of charade. Indeed, the use of portfolios in my school has withered to a state of show-and-tell with students collecting work each year to put in a folder accompanied by a superficial introduction essay. I say “superficial” because most essays lack any insight into how their portfolios demonstrate their writing processes or how their writing and thinking are improving. An excerpt from a typical tenth grade essay:

My writing really improved a lot this year and I worked hard to make it happen. I tried to correct all of my mistakes. I notice that I’m making fewer mistakes and my essays are longer. In my first essay I wrote about my mother. My friend said it was really good. Maybe it was good because I really love my mother. I hope you like this essay.

Of course, many students offer far greater insight into their work, but too many make no attempt to reflect on their growth or provide the reader with evidence to demonstrate progress. They give no examples, make no comparisons, and draw few conclusions. Not uncommonly, they depend on mechanical transitions of “my next essay,” “my third,” and so on, offering the reader no sense that the writer has actually thought about what she or he has learned. But to blame the students for these perfunctory performances would be to blame the victims. These students cannot be held responsible for what they have not been taught. Neither would it be reasonable to blame the teachers. They also have not been taught. Almost none of them were around in 1992 when a group of us were won over to the then-revolutionary concept of portfolio assessment. We became committed to the idea that portfolio assessment could shed light on the invisible: the struggles, the small steps forward, the intellectual progress over time. We spent many hours wrestling with the means to achieve these lofty ends.

The teachers who came along later had had no part in this dialogue. For them, students just weren’t getting it. “The kids just don’t know how to reflect. So why are we doing this?” they would ask. “Isn’t this really too much work for what we’re getting out of it?” I do not believe they would be asking these questions if they had been with us in 1992. At the risk of romanticizing some golden age of literacy education now obscured in the mists of time, I want to recall our work in that year and the years following.

The Birth Process

A new high school had been built in my district in California’s Central Valley, and I was returning to the classroom after seven years of being a teacher on special assignment. “A perfect opportunity,” I had said to a close colleague and friend, Joan. We had often talked about what we would do if we were in charge of the educational world. Now was our chance. The principal, who also believed the time had come for change, hired us along with four others. Jake, Nan, Joan, and I were veteran National Writing Project teacher-consultants, Dave was working on his thesis for a master’s degree, and Dawn, the youngest member, had taught in another district for five years.

Our work began in August—a long week of trying to come together. After setting our goals for the department and reviewing the curriculum, Joan and I suggested we design a portfolio system to help us meet our goal of improving student writing. In our enthusiasm, we both started talking at the same time, wanting to tell our stories of what we had learned about portfolios, our voices stepping on each other’s, perhaps mine being shamelessly the louder.

I had attended an inservice workshop for the San Joaquin Valley Writing Project (SJVWP), at which Mary Ann Smith (then director of the California Writing Project) demonstrated from her work at Mt. Diablo High School that much can be learned about teaching writing by looking at students’ writing over time. I shared my excitement about Mary Ann’s presentation, and, in fact, all of the teachers on our team had either read about or heard about this new concept and were ready to give it a try.

To move our process forward, Joan suggested we write for fifteen minutes about why we would want to assess student writing through portfolios. When we shared our quick-writes, we gave surprisingly similar reasons. We believed that we could see what students were actually learning if we compared early work to later work. We believed we could determine which assignments were well presented and which were confusing. We believed students would be able to see their progress in fluency and idea development and be inspired to work harder, that they could focus their problem solving if they saw patterns of repetition in their writing. We concluded that the more students were required to think about how they wrote, the more their writing would improve. After much discussion, we ultimately settled on two purposes for our portfolio design: we wanted students to see how they were growing as writers and thinkers from their freshman to senior year, and we hoped to collect information on how well we were teaching our curriculum.

Although defining our purposes for using portfolios brought a peaceful close to our first day together, we did not see eye to eye about how to accomplish these purposes. For the next three days, our philosophical differences about design and process came to light. Dave wanted a tight structure for students with a prepared list of every assignment required for the end-of-the-year portfolio. “It needs to show administrators and parents what we are teaching,” he insisted. Jake was more concerned about ownership. He argued that the portfolios belonged to the students, not to us, and therefore should consist of only their choices.

We debated the merits of these opposing views for an entire morning. Joan, whom we later called “O Thoughtful One,” came back from lunch with an idea. She explained that if we truly wanted to give students ownership and choices, while we gleaned information about our assignments, they needed to write several pieces in different genres. In this way, we would identify categories from which they could choose while ensuring that the work revealed the types of writing we were teaching (journal writing, response writing, narrative writing, interpretive writing, argument, and so on).

“Won’t that take a lot of time?” Dawn asked, which launched us into ways to weave writing into the study of literature. From these conversations, we began to realize how a portfolio system was going to change not only how we assessed students but also how we taught. The hard work lay ahead in our daily and weekly planning.

To achieve our first purpose, that students see and think about their growth, we agreed to include all drafts of process papers and to provide opportunities for students to select what they thought was their best work each quarter. Dave suggested they write a “letter to the reader,” while the rest of us preferred a reflective essay format. His argument for letter format was based on his belief that a letter might be less intimidating. The rest of us argued that an informal letter would not encourage the kind of reflection we intended to teach. After another hour of debate, we settled on the letter format for ninth-graders and the reflective essay writing for tenth-graders. At the same time, we reminded one another that whatever we decided was certainly not carved in stone.

But we were wrong. For all practical purposes our work was carved in stone. Other than creating a rubric that fall for scoring the end-of-the-year portfolios and eliminating, at the end of two years, the bulkiness that came with too many drafts, we never again questioned the process or design. We felt some guilt about this, but we thought we had an excuse. Our new school was growing so fast, with so many new teachers, that finding a time when everyone could meet became difficult. So we simply gave up. Our innovative school settled into being not so innovative.

The Inevitable Death

Eight years later, only two of our original six teachers are still teaching in the department, and twenty or more new teachers have since been hired. As a department, we no longer discuss student learning. Instead, we talk about raising test scores. The spirit of inquiry that characterized our little band of explorers metamorphosed into a spirit of disillusionment and then disappeared.

Today I ask myself, how did this happen? What became of our lofty plans to use portfolios as an assessment tool to measure our students’ growth as writers and our growth as teachers? What happened to the philosophical base we had constructed that guided our decisions about how and why we wanted to establish a four-year portfolio assessment system? Most important, what happened to our desire to be reflective practitioners to improve our teaching and to teach students to be reflective learners to improve their writing?

There are two answers to these questions: the simple one and the complex one. The simple answer I have already alluded to. As the school grew larger, teachers communicated less. Additionally, frequent changes in administrative staff resulted in a lack of informed support. The complex answer is that educational reform cannot be sustained, regardless of how pedagogically sound the practice may be, if new staff members are not acculturated to the beliefs and values that lay behind the establishing of the practice. Stated another way, school reform and those responsible for carrying out these changes need constant attention. We will not bring about change merely by demanding obedience. We cannot expect a group of teachers to buy into a program they do not understand and had no role in creating. In 1992, we were given the chance to welcome new ideas, and we were provided opportunities for growth and rediscovery. Presently, our teachers are given no such opportunity.

So we get the doubts: “Why are we doing this? The kids don’t see any value in it! What should I say to them?”

“My kids say they are going to stay home on Senior Showcase Portfolio Day. What should I do? Lower their grades?”

“My kids do a lousy job of reflecting. They just don’t know how to do it! Maybe they’re too young. Maybe we should rethink why we bother to use portfolios.”

Their comments jolt me. As I look in earnest at their faces, it strikes me that we are no longer the same department. These teachers have not read and argued and explored. They have not been asked to bring their experiences to the table. Over the years, the many new teachers who have been hired were told about the portfolio process, but the description was all nuts and bolts; there was no time to discuss philosophy. As we grew from a student body of 1,500 to one of 2,700, we made serious mistakes that perhaps can serve as a caution to others interested in school reform.

A Look Back

Error #1: We assumed that the newly hired young teachers had learned about the value of portfolio assessment in their teacher education classes. What we ultimately discovered was that they had read about portfolio assessment but felt ill-prepared to make decisions about process or design. Unfortunately, we gave this second generation of teachers only a set of operating instructions: “Tell your students to save all written work in this folder. At the end of the year, they will pick four pieces and the rest will be taken home. Then they will evaluate these pieces and write a reflective essay about what they have learned this year. The essay will be graded holistically on a six-point scale (see the department chair). At the end of their senior year, they will present their portfolio with sixteen pieces at Senior Showcase Portfolio Day.”

Without a firmer base, some of the teachers quietly ignored the rules, hoping they would go away. Their students did not collect work. Therefore, they had nothing to select from at the end of the year. Neither was there anything to reflect on. Our innovation was gradually dying from neglect.

Error #2: We assumed that the acculturation of our new teachers would take place naturally as they learned the system. After all, we shared a large department office. What talk there was, however, centered on questions of “how” instead of “why,” and our band of explorers soon became the minority voice, learning a hard lesson along the way: passing along how we do something but not why we do it not only results in uninformed instruction, miscommunication, and lack of motivation, it also limits progress. “Where do we go from here?” is a question that can be answered only by those who know where they have been. With only two remaining English teachers from the original six, we were essentially an English department without a history, with no collective knowledge of the bad old days before portfolio assessment or the struggle to make things better. As far as the new teachers were concerned, portfolio assessment was much ado about nothing. The kids were too immature to reflect meaningfully, their selections had no effect on the curriculum, and if the works were already graded, then the teacher had unwittingly classified the student’s work as good, average, or poor writing. Why bother keeping a writing folder? Only now do I see our folly, believing that the new teachers could live our history by rubbing shoulders with us. I see that any reform movement must include an invitation to bring new people on board, a careful plan that works toward inclusion. We had held tightly to our inner circle, believing we were the core, and circled the others around us. All that we lacked were crowns!

Error #3: We assumed that our beliefs were the best because we had come by them through hard work and so invited no discussion and left no room for questions that threatened our system. We explorers had become settlers. We were proud of ourselves, and our pride shut out each new teacher to the department because we saw ourselves as the experts. If we had opened up for change, we feared that new ideas would have rendered ours invalid, old. Per-haps it was our age difference that threatened us, that prevented us from inviting questions about process. Except for Dawn, we were all forty- or fifty-something. We were writing project teacher-consultants. We had master’s degrees. The new teachers were in their middle to late twenties. They could be our children.

Our school reform attempt crumbled, but I do not believe aborted efforts at change are unique to our district. In fact, I would argue that in many school districts, whether the change is to portfolio assessment or to some other innovation to improve student learning, the lack of attention to new personnel and the unwillingness to embrace new teachers in continuous grassroots talk will prove fatal for any reform movement. I feel sad that our story typifies many educational reform movements across the nation. “What is in this year?” teachers often joke with one another. “New math or old math? Whole language or phonics? Project-based learning or back to basics?” How do we survive the chaos?

In this environment, I have come to believe that the National Writing Project may provide one of the few opportunities for sustained improvement in education. The model provides opportunities for teachers to come together over and over again as they pursue professional growth and allows them to belong to a professional community that sustains and nurtures that growth. In fact, it was at a California Writing Project writing retreat that I began this article, receiving the support I needed to reflect on, and learn from, my experience. The project empowers teachers with their own knowledge and provides a home for the likes of me, an old teacher with a young heart yet one who is never too old to learn, even from failure.