Student portfolios can measure progress
The plain black binders lying on a table at St. George’s School of Montreal all look the same except for the handwritten labels carrying the names of students. But leaf through the pages and what emerges are individual portraits of children’s interests and passions.
In one binder, a student has put copies of letters he sent to a pen pal in Great Britain, along with examples of math problems and a sheet describing what he likes best about himself, his school and his friends. Another binder features a series of drawings illustrating what a child thinks life might be like for a child soldier in Africa.
These binders, or portfolios as the school calls them, are taking their place alongside traditional report cards as a way of measuring a student’s progress. Portfolios allow children to collect, document and think about all the different kinds of learning they do throughout a year. So a portfolio might include an essay, a drawing or a test.
Using portfolios to assess learning is growing in popularity. St. George’s School has been using them for the past 15 years and Quebec’s English school boards have been able to experiment with electronic portfolios for the past eight years (see sidebar).
Hannah Hershman, coordinator of student support services at St. George’s School, says there are two basic kinds of portfolios: a “showcase” in which a child places his or her best work and a “progress portfolio,” which is designed to document the process of learning. So, for example, a child might include several examples of essays that show how her vocabulary and spelling have improved over time.
“Portfolios help students and teachers think about how a child learns,” she explains. “The portfolios should reflect the whole child. They can also include work where the child had a hard time. It’s important for them to understand that mistakes are part of the learning process.”
At St. George’s, students must write out the reasons for including a particular piece before it can go into the portfolio. Hershman says this step encourages students to think about their own learning and helps them feel engaged in and excited by what they are doing in school. “A child who understands how he or she learns can use that skill for a lifetime,” she adds.
Near the end of the year, parents are invited to the school where their child presents and talks about the portfolio. Parents gain a deeper understanding not only of the work their child has accomplished but also what kind of person their child is at school, i.e. someone who loves doing experiments or prefers reading.
Hershman notes portfolios also help teachers better understand each student’s strengths, weaknesses and challenges. Some teachers at St. George’s School have created worksheets with questions like “What is my favourite subject in school and why do I like it” or “My biggest challenge in school is . . .” to encourage students to record more personal details about themselves. The worksheets are then put in the portfolios and students can add to them as the year progresses.
For Hershman, portfolios represent a huge step forward in helping children become responsible for and excited about their learning. She would like to see portfolios become an integral part of all student assessments. “Portfolios are a reference tool for kids, parents and teachers,” she says. “They are an active, ongoing and integrated picture of who a child is as a learner.”