Life presents everyone with a series of major and minor projects, ranging from small daily activities like meal planning and preparation to major undertakings like managing a sales campaign or buying a house. Adults routinely define goals, prepare schedules, coordinate with others, evaluate options, implement procedures, and evaluate outcomes. They usually know both the goals and the performance standards associated with the project's successful discharge. School projects help teach the skills that students will need to manage life's projects. Assessment techniques for student projects should contribute to these skills.
Environmental action projects are by their nature "authentic"; that is, they deal with real and realistic situations and apply content and skills that are actually useful in the real world. Authentic assessment requires extra thought and planning on the teacher's part but has the advantage of enabling students to take an active part in shaping their own learning. Portfolios are popular tools for assessing authentic learning situations because they provide a comprehensive view of students' progress in integrating skills and content in personally meaningful ways. The project portfolio allows students to take charge of the setting for their learning and then to present their work within its own unique context.
The objective of a project portfolio is to provide an evidential record of students' use of skills and information during the pursuit of the project's goals. Teachers who use project portfolios for evaluation typically adjust specifications to meet their individual needs. Factors such as time, compatibility with other aspects of the curriculum, existing team and school evaluation practices, and student readiness for independent and cooperative group work will influence portfolio requirements. Portfolios may be the responsibility of individual students or of workgroups.
Teachers may introduce the concept of maintaining a portfolio as a record of student achievement and a demonstration that students can use information and resources to achieve identified objectives. Teachers may wish to ask students which portfolio items would provide the best evidence of what the student knows and is able to do. Suggestions might include
- a statement of reason for the project
- a statement of goals
- lists of resources available to the class
- project plans and schedules
- a summary of options considered
- a project journal
- charts and graphs
- lists of certainties and uncertainties as the project develops
- an explanation of the importance of certain items
- copies of letters sent
- documentation of publicity or other recognition earned by the project.
The teacher or the class will need to address physical requirements of the portfolio, such as the following:
- Does it have to be in ink?
- Must it have a cover?
- Is a table of contents mandatory?
Defining Portfolio Specifications
- Content and format. The teacher should decide exactly what records each student must keep and in what form records must be kept. Although projects may differ and individual students may be doing different things, some consistency of format will be helpful.
- Volume of material. The teacher should decide how much material should be in the portfolio. Selecting material gives students the opportunity to conceptualize contents, critically evaluate individual entries for applicability, and otherwise synthesize what they want to communicate.
Guiding Portfolio Development
- Schedule. The teacher may wish to provide students with a list of the basic specifications and a schedule for due dates, interim, and final portfolio presentations.
- Standards. As project planning begins, the teacher should help groups identify what they will actually do. Through class and group discussion the groups should learn to identify the standards of excellence associated with project tasks. Teachers may wish to use examples of excellence (exemplars) to determine standards. They may also talk about what project materials students might choose to include in their portfolios to show that they have used the standards effectively.
Conducting Interim Portfolio Review
Teachers will need to conduct a preliminary review and discussion of portfolios well before projects are completed. In the review, they should compare materials presented with standards developed by the class. They may also analyze tasks to determine what needs to be done and what the differences between doing those things well and poorly might be. Teachers should try to catch students doing things right, using these successes as models for others.
Reviewing the Final Portfolio
Students should turn in, along with their portfolios, a required overall essay or notes attached to individual portfolio pieces explaining
- how and why the selected pieces were chosen
- how the portfolio represents what the students learned and accomplished.
The teacher should have a group conference with each project group, allowing each student to use the portfolio to describe how he or she contributed to the project.
Portfolios are not always easy to grade. How does a teacher grade a superb effort that netted a disappointing outcome in comparison to a project that had impressive results attributable to a few lucky events? How does a teacher handle situations in which some of the workgroup members failed to contribute? What happens to the grade if someone inadvertently damages or loses the portfolio? No one has all the answers, but the following tips should help:
- Focus on what is important for getting the job done. Although the results of any project should be meaningful to the students, of far greater importance is the students' developing ability to apply skills and content to effective problem solving.
- Rely heavily on the standards that the class identified as attributes of excellence. Apply these standards as numerical rating systems if necessary.
- Collaborate with other teachers on setting standards.
- Use several grades; if one portfolio is submitted by each workgroup, a group grade could be given for the portfolio and individual grades given for essays and performance of individual responsibilities as team members. For a win-win situation, award the group grade as extra credit, assuring that nobody could feel that other group members unfairly damaged individual grades. Students could also award a self-evaluation grade, based on their own assessment of personal achievement.
Burke, K., R. Fogarty, and S. Belgrad. The Mindful School: The Portfolio Connection. Arlington Heights: IRI/Skylight Training and Publishing, 1994. ISBN 0932935788.*
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The Developing Child: Authentic Assessment. New York: Glencoe McGraw-Hill, 2000. ISBN 0078207266.*
Fischer, C.F. Authentic Assessment: A Guide to Implementation. Thousand Oaks: Corwin Press, 1995. ISBN 0803962568.*
Paulson, F. L., P. A. Paulson, and C. A. Meyer. "What Makes a Portfolio a Portfolio?" Educational Leadership 48.5 (1991): 60–63.
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Wolf, D. P., P. G. LeMahieu, and J. Eresh. "Good Measure: Assessment as a Tool for Educational Reform." Educational Leadership 49.8 (1992): 8–13.
*Virginia public school educators may borrow this item free of charge from the CTE Resource Center Library, 2002 Bremo Road, Lower Level, Richmond, VA 23226 (phone 804-673-3778; fax 804-673-3798; e-mail info@CTEresource.org).