The word "portfolio" tends to conjure up images of lawyers or high-profile business folk carting around briefcases full of important, incomprehensible papers. When they get to the interview, courtroom, or business room in question, they slap that case on the desk, open it, and produce a crisp folder containing all of their impressive accomplishments and to-die-for documents.

In the elusive world of school, portfolios are assessment tools.

(Dramatic briefcase-on-desk slapping will develop with time.)

Despite popular belief, portfolios are not the culmination of a student’s junky assignments over the year: a portfolio should include intentionally chosen work that fulfills a purpose. And that purpose will determine what gets piled up inside.

Cons

While portfolios used to be the "it" assessment, their popularity has waned. Why? We have two hypotheses:

  1. Putting a portfolio together takes a lot of interaction from the student and the teacher. Cue: extra time required.
  2. The element of subjective grading, which might seem to skew the learning authenticity.
  3. People think portfolios aren’t authentic assessments because they're "just" a gathering of students’ past assignments.

Welp. That's one way of looking at it.

Pros

But what do the proponents say?

  1. Putting together a portfolio often highlights a student’s meaningful application of lessons learned, growth in learning, and newfound skills.
  2. Portfolios force self-reflection and goal setting. And whenever you can force those two things on students, do it.
  3. Student portfolios have been offered as an alternative to standardized tests. Can you even imagine a world without standardized tests? For the time being, neither can our government.

Hows

If you're more pro and than con and are considering using portfolios as assessment tools in the classroom, set your sights on these tips:

  • Set a goal. Decide what the goal of the portfolio will be. For example, if the goals to track student learning over time, make sure it includes assignments from different points of the year. If the goal is to measure levels of understanding at those different points, include personal reflection sheets and goal-setting organizers.
     
  • Decide how you'll grade. All students want to know how they'll be graded—plus, it helps them know what to focus on. Give them a detailed grading rubric so they know what you're looking for.
     
  • Have more than one grader. Portfolios are subjective little buggers, so try collaborating with an additional teacher or two. Including different perspectives will ensure a fair grade for the student.
     
  • Make sure students understand the purpose. Why should I learn this advanced math? Why do I have to pay taxes? Why do people wear leggings as pants? Avoid these questions (and, uh, more relevant ones) by telling your students, straight up, why portfolios are beneficial.
     
  • Give students choices. Not offering a choice can cause rebellion. It's as old as Grog the Caveman telling his son, Bog, not to touch the ancient Deinosuchus (Google it). Of course, Bog, the cheeky teen he was, decided he didn’t like being told what to do, touched the Deinosuchus, and proved his dad right. Grog could still be perfecting the wheel with Bog if he had just presented the instructions in a different way.

    The same goes with your own cheeky teens. Allow students to decide for themselves what they’d like in their portfolio, and welcome creative ideas. Don’t make the assignment so stringent that students feel like they have to dive headfirst into a toothy ancient reptile to make a rebellious point.
  • Technology is your friend. A digital portfolio takes away a lot of the stress associated with portfolio construction. Many schools provide services, files, or personal USBs to fill up their portfolio with meaningful information. It’s easier, quicker, and more accessible. Also, it’s just cooler.

Hey, at the very least, the parents have something to stuff in their keepsake box (or hard drive) and never look at again.