Assessing and Reporting Progress Through Student-Led Portfolio Conferences
Students hold the key to much of what they know and are able to do. They understand their strengths and they can identify the things that challenge them. Too often however, they are the last people consulted in developing procedures or practices for the assessment of their own learning. Too often the procedures and practices we do employ to measure student learning focus on instant recall of prescribed information. Rarely do they measure what students truly understand about themselves and their learning. Rarely do students have the opportunity to reflect on their own learning and growth, and rarely are they asked to use what they know and are able to do to demonstrate that growth and understanding.
Assessment practices must create opportunities for students to connect and make sense of the pieces of their learning as well. Students must have opportunities to use their skills and knowledge to demonstrate their understanding of issues and ideas. Multiple assessment strategies are needed to validate the multiple ways students make sense of their learning. Students need time to reflect on the work they do and to make the connections between and among tasks. This personal understanding, this personal integration of knowledge, is at the heart of the best assessment practices.
"Assess:" The word comes from Latin and means "to sit beside." The original meaning conjures up an image that could serve us well in our search for assessments that truly get at the heart of what is learned and understood by the students we teach. It suggests an attitude about assessment that moves away from standardization of learning and test score averages, and puts the assessment focus where it truly belongs - on the students themselves. The student-led portfolio conference gives parents and teachers the perfect opportunity to "sit beside" the student in a most purposeful way.
Students hold important information about what they know and what they are able to do, as well as what they don't know and are unable to do. Given the opportunity, students can discuss their learning and their growth competently with others. A portfolio of work contains concrete evidence of that learning and growth, and offers the perfect vehicle for discussing progress.
The portfolio offers students a way to organize the work from all parts of their school life, as well as important experiences outside of school. It allows them to connect both the pieces of work and experiences into the larger context of their learning, and to see how each piece and experience impacts the others. Creating the portfolio and preparing for the conference asks students to re-examine past work and to think about the strengths and the challenges of that work. It demands reflection and evaluation and offers students an opportunity to report their progress in a way that engages them in purposeful conversation about learning with their parents.
How the portfolio is organized may vary. In some schools the portfolio is divided into sections based on subject-area classes. Samples of work from each discipline are collected and form the basis for the conference conversation. Students discuss their accomplishments and their challenges, subject by subject, sometimes setting goals for improved work in a particular area. While this is an improvement over the traditional 20-minute parent-teacher conferences of the past, this subject-specific organization focuses on the "pieces" rather than on the "whole."
In schools where teachers are attempting to integrate the curriculum around themes central to the interests and concerns of adolescents, assessment and evaluation tools are created that connect the disciplines. In these cases, subject-divided portfolios seem at cross-purposes since teachers are not looking to re-divide complex themes into subject pieces, but rather to focus on the connections of the pieces within a broader context of learning.
In Vermont, the "Vital Result Standards" from Vermont's Frameworks for Standards and Learning Opportunities offer a more global organizational structure for a student's portfolio of work. The portfolio can be divided into the Vital Results sections: Communication, Reasoning and Problem Solving, Personal Development, and Civic and Social Responsibility. This division offers students a wider view of their accomplishments. It allows work from a variety of disciplines to be included in the same category, again reinforcing the connections among the disciplines and the universality of particular skills and attitudes. A multiple bar graph becomes less of a math assignment, the persuasive essay less of an English assignment, and both are seen more correctly as ways to communicate information and ideas. This reorganization of work away from the disciplines and into more global categories validates the relevance of the work in a larger context.
Student portfolios contain work samples from all areas of a student's school life, as well as documentation of other learnings and accomplishments outside of school. All work, including that previously assessed by both teacher and student, is reexamined and sorted for inclusion in one of the Vital Results sections. For some students this is a difficult process since it is hard to look critically at work accomplished and then place it somewhere in the bigger picture of understanding what was actually learned. Even more difficult is to see this sorting, categorizing, analyzing, and generalizing as an integral piece of the learning process itself.
Student, Teacher, and Parent Roles
The student's main responsibility in the portfolio process is to create a portfolio of work, making serious decisions about how and why a particular piece fits into a particular section. It is at this time that the connections between and among the separate subjects become clear and the universality of some skills and processes is highlighted. Upon completion, students "rehearse" the portfolio conference with a peer and then with a teacher, discussing the body of work as evidence of learning, before taking the portfolio home for parent review. At the conference, the student is clearly in charge of the conversation and ready for any difficulties that may come up. With their parents and teachers, students set new goals based on the challenges they have identified.
The teacher has responsibility to inform parents of the rationale and procedures for student-led conferences. An evening presentation, complete with students and parents who have participated before, can be very helpful in answering parents' questions and heading off potential problems. The teacher also maintains the organizational framework for the portfolio process: storage, folders, forms, checklists, as well as providing class time and support for the portfolio organization and rehearsal. Teachers help schedule the conference times and are present to greet parents. During the conference, teachers are available to support students if needed but, for the most part, stay in the background. Of course, they are there to finalize the new goals with families at the end of the conference.
Parents play an important role in this process, as well. It is important that they are familiar with their child's portfolio BEFORE arriving for the conference. The focus of the conference should be on learning and growth, not a "show and tell" display of work. The conference is a time for parents to "sit beside" their child, listen to and trust their child's assessment of his/her own learning, and ask good questions. The parent works with the child (and the teacher) to set new goals based on the discussion during the conference. When asked to share their opinions about the portfolio process with those new to it, parents and students familiar with the process had this to say during a 1995 Alpha Team parent forum in Shelburne, Vermont:
- Students value the ability to critically analyze their work. This ability has proven valuable in high school.
- Student-led conferences offer students a real voice in the assessment of their learning.
- The first portfolio conference can be overwhelming…for the student and the parent.
- The portfolio conference is a "performance"…students are nervous and need support.
- The primary job of the parent is to listen.
- Parents should step back and let the student do things his/her way. They should save concerns until the portfolio presentation is over.
- There is sometimes a struggle between parent expectations and the student's own understanding of quality, quantity, and presentation.
- Shortfalls in the portfolio are good motivators for improvement the next time.
- Questions should be open-ended. ("Why is this a good example of…?" or "Tell me about this piece.")
- Refinement in subsequent conferences is of particular value.
- Mutual respect is emphasized and nurtured.
- Students view the portfolio conference as a "day of reckoning."
- The portfolio conference is part of the process of learning. Both its successes and weaknesses are valuable in informing the next steps in that process.
Reporting progress through student-led portfolio conferences is a natural next step for teachers and teams to take in their continued efforts to integrate learning and to honor and reflect student voice in the learning process. Preparation and successful implementation of student-led portfolio conferences demand active participation from students, teachers, and parents. It creates a purposeful way for young adolescents to talk with adults about their learning and offers parents a direct and active role in their child's school life.
Portfolio conferences offer students, parents, and teachers the opportunity for a sustained and focused conversation about learning. They honor the student as knowledgeable about his/her accomplishments and offer students the chance to set goals to address areas that challenge him/her. The portfolio itself becomes a treasured collection of work samples that shows growth and expertise in a variety of areas, connecting content, concepts, and skills from the disciplines in an integrated and natural way. By granting students an active and meaningful role in assessing and interpreting their own learning, we provide an authentic context for self-evaluation, a context that fosters accountability and the honest appraisal of both successes and challenges.
For further information contact:
Carol Smith, Alpha Team
Shelburne Community School
Shelburne, VT 05482
For further reading about assessment and student-led portfolio conferences:
Anthony, R.J., Johnson, T.D., Mickelson, N.I., & Preece. A. Responsive evaluation: Reporting to parents. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Arnold, J., & Stevenson, C. (1998). Teachers' teaming handbook: A middle level planning guide. Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace and Co.
Austin, T. (1994). Changing the view: Student led conferences. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Barker, S., & Tolensky, W. Student led conferences. York Region Board of Education, Ontario, Canada. http://www.yrbe.edu.on.ca/~cecn/slc/home.html.
Coyote Team Project. Student led conferences. http://www.rialto.k12.ca.us/school/frisbee/coyote/ interdisciplinary6.html.
Davies, A. (1997). "Celebrating student learning with student involved conferences." Mindshift Connection: Assessment. Zephyr Press.
Danielson, C. & Abrutyn, L. (1997). An introduction to using portfolios in the classroom. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Fogarty, R. (Ed.). (1996). Student portfolios: A collection of articles. Palatine, IL: IRI/Skylight. ERIC# Ed 392 542. Herbert, E. (1992). Portfolios invite reflection from students and staff. Educational Leadership, 49(8), 58-60.
Herbert E. with Schultz, L. (1996, April). The power of portfolios. Educational Leadership, 53(7), 70-71.
Kenny, M., O'Donnell, M., & Smith, C. (1995). Student-led parent conferences. VAMLEFocus. Johnson, VT: Vermont Association for Middle Level Education.
Lustig, K. (1996). Portfolio assessment: A handbook for middle level teachers. Columbus, OH: National Middle School Association.
Perrone, V. (Ed.). (1991). Expanding student assessment. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
State Department of Education. (Revised, 1996). Vermont framework for standards and learning opportunities. Montpelier, VT: Author.
Stevenson, C. (1997). Portfolios and self-knowledge. VAMLE Focus. Johnson, VT: Vermont Association for Middle Level Education.
More current readings on this topic:
A School-Wide Approach to Student-Led Conferences: A Practitioner's Guide. (2001) Patti Kinney, Mary Beth Munroe, and Pam Sessions