What Happened to the Student Portfolios?

Many teachers want to change the way they do things, but sometimes there's just a lack of tools, a clear plan, or systems already in place about how to proceed. Teachers and administrators are so busy, that unless the tools and the plans are ready to go, sometimes the best intentions have to get left behind.

Authentic assessment is a great example of something so many teachers want to do, but can't always pull off. At one school I worked at, teachers all agreed to a new plan of authentic assessment. The administration had made it clear that each student should have a student portfolio of real work samples. Not only would teachers view this work as part of the assessment process for report cards and conferences, but each portfolio would be passed on at the end of the year to the next year teacher so they could get to know their new kids.

It started as an exciting idea by administrators and teachers - instead of just using test grades, let's look at real student work! Let's get on the bandwagon of portfolio assessment! So the teachers made boxes to store some of the students' best work throughout the year.

Well, at first all was going well. Good samples got saved, and some of it got used a few times during parent teacher conferences. But then, as the year progressed, the realities of paper and time started working against the teachers. The boxes got more and more stuffed full of paper and there was no system set up for weeding out work as more came in. Some teachers kept the boxes in order, and others let them get increasingly messy. At the end of the year, some teachers were stressed when the administration asked them to prepare a final folder of best work spanning the year for each student, to pass on to the next teacher. Some of them managed this better than others - the ones that were very well-organized. Finally, the boxes that some of the teachers made were all lined up and labeled. It was at this point that everything started to fall apart.

The teachers started moving faster and faster to finish cleaning their classrooms for summer vacation. Students were revved up with end-of-year energy and kept the teachers very busy. Some of the portfolios were meant to be labeled, but that just wasn't a priority with everything else going on. And some of the boxes weren't labeled that well either. When the kids left on the final day, admin asked the teachers to move the portfolios and other boxes all into the hall so the cleaners and painters could work in the summer. Some of the portfolio boxes that were labeled well got moved to a hallway storage area. Some stayed mixed in with the rest of the boxes.

Well, sometime late in the next fall, I was helping out at the school, and there was a need to clear out some storage space. Someone said there were a bunch of boxes lying around. They asked me to help figure out what they were and get rid of them. Well... there they were, the boxes of portfolios of beautiful student work. Most of them had never made it to the next grade teachers. "Wait!" I said... "There are teachers expecting these! This is student work! This is supposed to go to their next teachers!" I frantically tried to contact teachers. Some had left the school. I checked on student names... they were all in different rooms now, it would be a long process to match the folders to their new teachers, and some were missing last names and grades. Some folders were meant for the middle school down the road but had never made it there. No one at that school was expecting them or ready to pick them up - it was already way into the school year and they were on to other things, too, and no one had time, energy, or cars to deal with these boxes of mixed up student work. No one could even organize getting the work back into the students' hands or their parents' hands because the kids were all spread out in different rooms and grades. No one wanted to deal with these darned boxes. In the end, they had to be tossed in the recycling bin. At least they were recyclable; I rationalized, as I watched them get hauled away. And at least some of the other portfolios in the school had made it to their destinations and not to this corner of the hallway. But, it made me think, there must be a better way.

Now, just a few years later, at least there is a much better way - digital portfolios are starting to become available to replace big heavy boxes filled with papers. But even as we find good solutions with technology, we still need to remember, that behind every good idea, there's a need for good implementation and planning, so that all of our teachers, students, parents, and administrators can see good things come of their good intentions.

June Schwartz is writing expert for digital portfolio at Open School ePortfolio.

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