Portfolio Assessment
by Ana McDonald
(January 1996)

For first grade, I took unschooling to new heights. The girls read what they wanted, when they wanted. They listened as I read from What Every First Grader Needs to Know when I wanted. They got all the educational computer games they could stomach, and had free reign with PBS.

Once a week or so, my husband would decide to hold "school." He'd sit with four-year-old Cori and six-year-old Dottie while they completed pages from the workbooks I ordered at every opportunity. He'd coach their writing practice. He'd grade their papers.

Between the two of us, we had a fairly balanced approach to home education. By spring, we knew that the girls had learned a great deal. But we couldn't prove it.

That's a problem. As committed as I am to home education, I'm fully aware that my children may someday want or need to enter the mass educational system. They shouldn't be placed in remedial classes simply for lack of documentation of what they already know. So this year, we're compiling and evaluating portfolios.

An alternative to standardized testing, Portfolio Assessment is one way to chart a child's educational progress. But it's much more.

Portfolio Assessment provides structure to unschooled children's interest-led curriculums. With the parent/teacher's assistance, children decide what they want and need to learn, then set goals. They determine what criteria will best demonstrate their progress. They use those criteria to choose the portfolio's contents: examples of schoolwork which showcase their learning processes and accomplishments. Then children and teachers evaluate the portfolio, decide which criteria have been met and which need more work, and finally set new goals.

It all sounds very high-minded and complicated, but the practice is easy. Our now seven-year-old Dottie is extremely social. One evening at the beginning of her second-grade year, Dottie cried because she didn't have anyone to play with. When I suggested she read a book, Dottie pointed out that she doesn't read well enough to read on her own yet, and that I didn't have time to read to her.

So we set a goal: Dottie will be comfortable reading books by Christmas. To get there, she'll read one book or chapter a day on her own; she'll listen as I read aloud a book or chapter from some more advanced work. To chart her progress, we'll keep a daily reading log.

For each book, Dottie can fill out a form describing the book and what parts she likes best and least. She can make a story map, draw her own illustrations for text-heavy books, or do any of the workbook-type activities that I can discover or devise. If she wants, she can even write her own books, borrowing characters, plots, or themes from the books she reads.

Her entire week's work will go into a folder. On Fridays, Dottie will make her portfolio, choosing one or two examples that she feels best reflect her progress. Those papers will be placed in a three-ring binder and "published" to her friends and family over the weekend.

By Christmas, Dottie will have a running record of her learning. She'll choose samples from each month's work to fix permanently into a scrapbook. By examining and reflecting on her scrapbook, Dottie can set new goals.

I expect that this Christmas, Dottie will decide to improve her penmanship and spelling because she will be able to see, with her own eyes, that they could be better. Penmanship and spelling will then become selection criteria for her spring portfolio.

A Language Arts Portfolio may contain reading logs and responses, story retellings, writing and spelling samples, or even tapes of the child reading out loud. It could include photocopies of letters written to pen pals; poetry, journal entries, and other creative writing; book reviews, essays, or reports; and of course, the ubiquitous workbook pages.

Portfolios need not be restricted to language arts. Mathematics, fine arts, social studies, history, and science all lend themselves well to portfolio assessment. Include videotapes of dramatic performances and audio tapes of a child's musical education. Add samples of two-dimensional artwork and photographs of three-dimensional or perishable science projects. Date each entry, and include a brief sentence describing how and why it was collected. Work that doesn't fit well into a binder could be kept in boxes, drawers, or file cabinets.

Before beginning a science project, for example, a child might first write down what he wants to learn. When done, he could evaluate how well the project fulfilled that purpose. Or you, as parent/ teacher, might devise a knowledge-and-attitude survey to give your child before and after completing a unit of social studies, to demonstrate how the child has grown and changed. Home educated children can work together, interviewing each other or interesting adults, collaborating on reports of group activities and field trips, and reviewing each other's portfolios. The possibilities are endless.

Self-assessment is an important part of this process, and not just the global self-assessment and goal setting described above. Self checklists and statements can monitor progress of individual projects. A writing self-assessment, for example, might include true-false responses to statements such as "I write about things I am interested in" or "I use new words in my story." A more experienced reader might make predictions about a story and then evaluate whether or not his predictions were accurate.

One main purpose of portfolios and their assessment is to empower children to evaluate their learning, set guidelines and judge results, make decisions, take credit for successes, and correct failures.

But the burden should not be entirely the child's. The parent/teacher is an important part of the assessment process. As adults with a good grasp of what our children need to learn, we guide our children's selection of goals and criteria. We should review portfolios with our children and encourage them to talk about what they've learned. We should balance their observations with our own. We can, and should, keep our own records of our child's progress, which may be integrated into the portfolio or exist as a separate section.

Perhaps one of the most important records we can keep is an anecdotal journal of our child's education. It can include accounts of our child's activities as well as our subjective interpretation of his progress. It will become a valued memento of his childhood as well as an essential part of his educational record.

We should also include objective data, such as Running Records (brief accounts of the things our child does or says while reading a sample text; read Marie Clay's The Early Detection of Learning Difficulties to learn more).

Inventories, which help us place a child on a developmental continuum, can be adapted from teacher's manuals and books, as can surveys and evaluation forms designed for the traditionally educated child's parents to fill out.

And of course, we can devise our own tests to give our children, or use published tests and scoring methods. When these become part of a portfolio, they can provide important information without branding a student an "A" or "D" learner.

Portfolios may also serve as bridges between home-educated students and the mass educational system. When we devise checklists, we can include data that will yield scores. Scores help place children's performances within academic areas, and go far to soothe the worries of loving relatives or concerned public officials.

One method, sometimes known as the Descriptive Marking Scale (DMS), involves defining objectives and scoring criteria for each objective. A DMS objective for a writing project may be focus, with lack of focus rated as 0, minimal focus as 1, moderate focus as 2, and maintained focus as 3. By defining criteria for different objectives, then adding scores and calculating the percentage of the best possible score, you can calculate a "grade" for your child's essay. One advantage of this method is that your child can help define objectives and criteria, and can then rate himself and compare his scoring to yours. The DMS becomes a learning tool in itself.

Another way of scoring children within the confines of portfolio assessment is to design a ten-item checklist that allows you to rank your child's performance in each area on a scale of one to ten. This method, in which the greatest possible number of points is 100, is often called analytic holistic scoring. By rating each area and adding the scores, you can come up with a "grade" similar to the ones most of us grew up with. An essay evaluation might include rankings, from one to ten, of neatness, spelling, punctuation, paragraphing, transitional phrases, sentence structure, word choice, spelling, tone, and achievement of purpose.

You might also design a list of criteria for different grade ranges. The child would have to fulfill all the criteria in order to earn a certain grade. A second grade reading program might require a child to read 50 books in order to earn a semester's grade of A, 40 books for a B, 30 for a C, and so on.

The truly ambitious parent/teacher could design a report card that includes narrative statements and descriptive labels to replace grade levels, or design a checklist-type report card with spaces for subjective remarks.

These objective criteria may be especially helpful if your children leave home school and enter the traditional educational system‹ whether for college or earlier. They can also be useful if you need to justify your homeschooling curriculum to government officials.

If questioned, be prepared to discuss your educational philosophy and methodology. If possible, give the names and telephone numbers of professional educators who use portfolios in their traditional classrooms. Invite the official to participate in setting goals, designing criteria, and assessing the results. Be flexible, but remember that the portfolio is the child's property and responsibility. All adult input should affirm and strengthen the child's ownership of his learning process.

Accountability and ownership are the hallmarks of this child centered approach to learning. By providing structure, Portfolio Assessment supports children's interests while lending the objective validity necessary to bridge the gap between home and traditional education. It does so by focusing on children's successes, on what they can do instead of what they can't, on what they do know instead of what they don't. Having a visible, tangible record of what they have accomplished gives children validation of their innate abilities and motivates them to accomplish more. By giving children control, Portfolio Assessment teaches them about their own strength and power.

Please Note:

It is recommended that Portfolios are done for your own personal enjoyment and NOT used for official assessment purposes as we do not at this point in time know precisely how they will be evaluated. Standardised tests will provide legally required information without infringing on your child's freedom of conscience and privacy.

~ Adèle Breedt