A portfolio assessment is a collection of student work that has been systematically gathered and evaluated by teachers and professors. In general, portfolios consist of student work samples that show student growth over a specific length of time, ranging from semesters or years to an entire school career. Portfolios are assessed using predetermined rubrics. However, unlike standardized performance assessments (such as ACT/SAT tests), there is no national rubric or nationally recognized type of portfolio.
There has been some research into the effectiveness of the portfolio as an assessment tool. There are issues with reliability of scores for portfolio assessments, due in part to non-standard rubrics, but also to the human element. Even if you have a school-wide or district-wide rubric for assessing portfolios, individual raters will bring different ideas as to what constitutes a passing portfolio, an adequate piece of writing, etc.
A note on rubrics. Most rubrics we have seen follow the example of this rubric, from The University of Georgia. They include terms like adequate, abundant detail, sound logic, sufficient, etc. There are many ways these terms could be interpreted, and thus the difference between a paper that meets the standards for high proficiency and good proficiency is left to the individual grading the composition. We all know there have been times when we might be more lenient or harsher as we come to the bottom of a stack of 100 compositions (or 20). Even if each essay is scored on the same rubric, how accurate can the scoring really be? There are other difficulties using portfolios as placement tools. As noted, there is no one national standard portfolio requirement for high school graduation. If your program would evaluate student composition abilities for placement using portfolios, you would receive student work samples that vary widely in content and scope. Should you choose to require a sample portfolio, you might consider asking students for specific types of writing, such as a persuasive essay, a research paper and a narrative essay. In addition, this fails to take into account non-traditional students, students who are returning to the classroom after some years away, students who are coming to college not with high school diplomas but with GED certifications, students who are immigrants or international students. Most likely these students will not have writing samples available, and these are typically the students who make up the bulk of students in a Basic Writing program.
Advantages of Portfolio Assessments as Placement Tools
Disadvantages of Portfolio Assessments as Placement Tools
The University of Michigan used portfolio assessments as placement tools for several years. A study evaluating the now-discontinued program is available through ERIC databases (see bibliography for citation). The university now uses a type of directed self-placement which asks students to read a 10 page article and write a 2–3 page response to that article, then answer short survey questions about the experience. This is done online before the student registers for classes.
The following programs use some form of portfolio assessment as a tool for placement. Below are links to the requirements pages so you can see just what is required for placement in first-year composition classes.
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill sorts most student into composition classes based on standardized test scores. However, the school offers the option of submitting a portfolio placement exam to first year undergraduates only if students feel the test scores do not adequately reflect their abilities.
Incoming first-year college students and transfer students in their first semester at the University of Louisville may submit a portfolio to be considered for possible placement out of English 101 or 102. Students are assessed a $30 processing fee.
Like the University of Louisville, UNR offers students an opportunity to submit portfolios as an alternative placement method to test scores. A fee of $35 is assessed, and there do not appear to be restrictions limiting this alternative to incoming freshmen or first semester transfer students.
Should you decide to use portfolio assessments as a placement tool, the following books and articles will provide useful information to evaluate the effectiveness of the tool and their use in other university programs.
By Sarah Olson and Debra Touchette, for Karen Uehling’s ENGL 563, Spring 2011