October 23, 2015 by

Way More Than a Score: Using Digital Portfolios as Authentic Assessment Repositories

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By Dawn J. Mitchell and Melissa Summer Wells

Mitchell and Wells Assessment 300x300Across the country, parents have received first quarter report cards full of letter grades and reports from standardized assessments showing where students rank nationally and locally according to their performance on high-stakes, and in many instances, timed standardized tests.

Parents are valuable stakeholders, but many times the most important pieces of student assessment data are not included in the report card or in the standardized test reports.

Let’s take a moment to consider all that a student has experienced as a learner over these first nine weeks of the school year. One 5th grader has participated in an Oregon Trail project-based learning unit. He has designed and constructed a model of a Conestoga wagon with his peers using PVC pipe and duct tape. He has drawn maps with detailed legends and keys, written journal entries from the perspective of a pioneer, and participated in a simulation with his group, collaboratively creating an excel spreadsheet that calculates their daily expenses and serves as a financial report of their trip west. He has read deeply a variety of nonfiction informational texts related to this historical time period. All of this learning in just one unit! But how is this learning communicated and validated to our parents and students?

Despite the recognition that learners—and instruction—have changed over the years, assessment techniques have remained relatively static. However, some parents and teachers are pushing for assessments that reflect a student’s growth more accurately than a single letter grade per subject. National organizations are also aligning with these pushes to change assessment, like NCTE’s 2013 position statement on formative assessment. Digital portfolios can help change assessment from something teachers do to students into something teachers and students collaboratively construct. Here are some examples of free tools teachers can use in their classrooms to create digital learning portfolios with their students. 

  • Evernote: Evernote is accessible via apps (for Android, Windows, and iOS phones/tablets) and is also web-based–client accessible on all platforms. Users create digital notebooks to store their notes, which can include text, pictures, documents, and audio recordings. Additionally, users can designate tags to sort notes into different categories or themes across notebooks. To use Evernote as a digital portfolio in the classroom, teachers can create notebooks for each student. Notes documenting student work (with text the teacher enters, photographs of student work, documents of student work, links to student-created digital resources, or audio of student conversations) can be filed in each student’s notebook. Tags can be used to annotate standards, teaching themes, mastery of content, areas to grow, and much more.  
  • Padlet: Padlet is a tool that is easily accessed through web browsers (though there is a recently developed app in the iTunes store, too). After creating an account, users can create Padlet walls that are openly accessible via their unique URLs. This means that students can contribute to Padlet walls without having to create their own accounts. Users double-click/tap on the Padlet wall to post a digital “sticky note” of text, pictures, audio, video, links, or other attachments. Students can create Padlet reading walls, post background knowledge or wonderings at the beginning of an inquiry project, document new learning as an inquiry project evolves, post responses to a teacher-created task (like creating a math word problem involving rounding to the nearest 100)—the possibilities are limitless! 
  • Seesaw: Seesaw is another option for digital student-driven learning portfolios. Teachers create an account and enroll each student in their class. Students access their class account through a QR code or a typed code, which keeps their work contained within their own learning communities. Teachers can also enroll parents, who are only able to see their own child’s contributions. Students can post in a variety of formats (text, video, audio, photographs, links, drawings created within the app, and more), and teachers can choose to moderate posts before they appear on the class page. Seesaw is accessible through apps (iOS and Android devices) or web browsers (Chrome and Firefox).

In advocating for the whole child, we must provide our parents, our colleagues, and most importantly our students with a broader view of what our students know, what they can do, and what and how they are learning in our classrooms. As educators, we know that these summative standardized tests are just one glimpse into a students’ progress and achievement—and what they leave out is often so much more valuable.

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Dawn J. Mitchell works in instructional services in Spartanburg (S.C.) School District Six. She specializes in literacy professional development and leads the district’s induction course to provide relevant strategies and support to first-year teachers. Mitchell also serves as the partnership coordinator and an adjunct instructor for the Spartanburg Writing Project and as an adjunct instructor at Furman University, where she supervises and mentors preservice and induction teachers through the Teacher to Teacher program. She is currently a member of the ASCD Emerging Leaders Class of 2015. Connect with Mitchell on Twitter @dawnjmitchell.

Melissa Summer Wells has served children in Spartanburg (S.C.) School District Six as a 3rd grade teacher, a kindergarten teacher, and, most recently, a literacy coach. She received a BA and MA from Furman University and is nearing completion of her PhD coursework in language and literacy at the University of South Carolina (USC). Her research interests include critical digital literacies in early childhood settings and bidirectional family learning communities. Wells is a member of the South Carolina ASCD Emerging Leaders Class of 2015 and an adjunct professor at USC-Upstate. Connect with Wells on Twitter @mswells01.