Assessment

The Power of Portfolios: A Positive Practice

Portfolios can help students aim high.
July 1, 1997

The limitations of multiple-choice tests are apparent in subjects such as writing, music, and visual arts -- a good test score indicates very little about a student's ability to analyze or create an essay, a musical composition, or a work of art.

The best way to assess a person's abilities and understanding in these fields is to review samples of their work. That is why professionals in these fields compile portfolios, and it is also why portfolios are now used in all of Pittsburgh's secondary schools to assess student learning in writing, music, and visual arts.

Each of the district's 18,900 sixth through twelfth graders compile portfolios containing a history of their learning on selected projects. The portfolios contain a range of work, such as initial sketches, early and final drafts, and self- and peer-assessments. The work collected in the portfolios is used as a source of instruction.

Teachers used samples of student work to develop models of excellence along a six-point scale. At annual districtwide portfolio audits, portfolio samples are evaluated by teachers and administrators from different schools, as well as by community members. As a result, score reliability has been very high.

The emphasis on meaningful tasks, self-reflection, and self-assessment are natural outgrowths of portfolios. "Student reflection opened the door to what was missing in my experience and my knowledge as a writing teacher," says Kathy Howard, a Pittsburgh teacher. "There is a shift in the power base from teacher to students. Students start looking at models of good writing and setting their own criteria and standards for good work."