Navigating the World of Portfolios

One Teacher's Experience with Alternative Assessment

By Marc Osten

Students reflect on their work before placing it in their portfolios.

Many teachers do not want to rely on standardized tests and worksheets to assess student progress, and view with interest the trend toward portfolios and other forms of what are known as “authentic assessment.” Yet many teachers have questions about how to implement a system of authentic assessment. The difficulty is not just moving toward a new form of assessment, but the changes in teaching required.

I teach second grade at Traver Road School, a public school in New York state’s Hudson River Valley. The area is mostly rural and white, with growing suburban influence and an increasing number of African Americans. About 5% of the students take part in the free breakfast and lunch program. For two years, my students, their parents, and I have been experimenting with portfolios and other self-assessment activities as an alternative to standardized tests.

We view portfolios as just one aspect of a more powerful approach to education. My classroom is what is often called “student-centered.” I try to create an experience-rich environment using cooperative learning techniques and alternative approaches to curriculum. I use portfolios as an important tool not only in assessing and documenting student progress, but in helping children develop their ability to think and to set goals for themselves.

The portfolios cover math, writing and reading. The children occasionally also make “bonus” choices and can choose whatever they want — artwork, for example.

Here is how the portfolio project works in my classroom. Every month, the children review and select either a math or writing sample to include in their portfolio. About three times a year, I weave reading and “bonus” choices into the selection. For reading, the children choose pieces of writing they’ve done about books they’ve read. I also videotape the children reading a favorite selection from a book, and the children use the video to help them figure out what they need to improve on in order to read better. We follow this process.

  • As a class we revisit and discuss the purposes of a portfolio.
  • The children review the goal they established for themselves when they made their previous portfolio choice.
  • The children review their work and find a piece of work that demonstrates they have worked towards the goal they set.
  • They then review that work in order to set a new goal to work towards.
  • Each child then meets with me for a mini-conference. At that time they defend their choice and I explain to them the goals I think they need to work towards. This conference is a critical time for me to carefully review their progress and help them set sights on mastering new skills.
  • The children then bring their portfolios home to explain and defend their choices to their parents.
  • Parents then return a form noting that they discussed the portfolio with their child.


My students and I regularly discuss what it feels like to build portfolios and share them with parents and peers. I videotape portfolio conferences with students, use comment sheets and questionnaires from parents, and notes from my own discussions with students to continually assess and modify the portfolio project. Here are some things I have learned along the way.

  1. You can make changes even if the system and other teachers do not.
  2. Involving parents is critical to success.
  3. Portfolio assessment fosters an environment where students can “own” their learning experience.
  4. Portfolio assessment activities are valuable opportunities to review content and skills.
  5. Portfolio assessment works well when combined with activities in which students regularly assess their own and their team’s performance


1. You can make changes even if the system and other teachers do not. This lesson may not seem particularly profound, but it bears repeating. While a district-wide assessment system in which children build portfolios over many years is probably optimal, portfolios are helpful even if you are the only teacher using them. The school district I work in has no district-wide alternative assessment system, yet students, parents, and I have watched our project thrive. I first became interested in portfolios while doing work for my masters degree at Wheelock College in Boston. As part of my degree, I taught full-time in the Brookline Public Schools with a mentor teacher, Jim Swaim, who did a lot of self-assessment with his students. I noticed the experience was not only powerful for the students, but gave Jim a poignant window into the students’ progress.

2. Involving parents is critical to success. Portfolios have enriched the parent-student-teacher connection; in my opinion, this may be the most beneficial aspect of the project. Students regularly present portfolios to their parents. Parents get to see their children’s work, hear why their children chose a certain piece, and discuss the goals children have set for themselves.

Here are just a few of the many comments and questions from parents generated by their review of their child’s portfolio. (To protect confidentiality, I have changed the students’ names.)

  • “ How can I assist Michael with his advancement in all areas. We read quite a bit, but at times I worry about his retention.”
  • “I would like to understand your objectives for the second half of the year.”
  • “I would like to know more about what is being accomplished in problem solving. Jessica has a habit of arriving at an answer but not explaining how she arrived at the answer.”
  • “I wonder if I should worry about grammar at this point in Danny’s development.”
  • “Katherine is anxious to be more challenged, especially in math.”
  • “I would love to see my child doing more creative writing.”

“Peter and I were impressed by his improvements in neatness and spelling. He was proud of his work and excited about sharing it with me. His goals are strong and I’m sure we’ll see them achieved.”

“I was impressed with how excited Julie was about the portfolio. She was so proud of herself and really enjoyed sharing with me.”

“I liked the video of Jessy reading. The whole family (all eight of us) sat and listened to her story. No one spoke during the whole time. We all thought Jessy did a great job. I especially liked seeing her sound out the words or look at the pictures to help figure out the word. I was, as was the rest of the family, distracted by the background noise. We didn’t know if Jessy was fidgeting or just the kids in the room doing their thing. Anyway, keep this up. It’s a very good idea.

3. Portfolio assessment fosters an environment where students can “own” their learning experience. Students achieve more and take greater pride in their accomplishments when they have such control. For example, if students help brainstorm criteria for judging their work they care more about the work and the evaluation process. Instead of being told what is important, they develop the ability to create their own criteria. Occasionally the students and I discuss how they feel about the portfolio process. Here are some thoughts they’ve had.

  • Andrew: “I like my portfolio because I like picking the good work I did. I like reading it because my mom encourages me.”
  • Laura: “I think doing portfolios is fun because I feel proud and strong when I show my mom or my dad my work.”
  • Jenna: “I think portfolios are good because they really show your teacher what you’re doing well and what you need help at.”
  • Joe: “I think it is cool to have a portfolio because it is cool to go back and see how you’ve gotten better in the year and because I like to see what good choices I’ve made.”

4. Portfolio assessment activities are valuable opportunities to review content and skills. Choosing work to include in portfolios takes time. I encourage children to work slowly and review all their work before choosing. At first I felt this took away from instructional time. I now realize that time spent reviewing work for portfolio selection reminds students of all they have learned and areas where they need to work harder. Each time a student makes a portfolio choice they have to fill out a form. They then staple the form to the selection they’ve made. There are two questions on the form. They are: What does this portfolio choice show that I know how to do? What goals have I set for myself to improve?

The students’ written answers to these questions highlight how useful the process is.

For example, Melinda wrote on a writing sample from November 1995: “I am writing about the haunted mansion. I know how to do upper case letters at the beginning of sentences. I know how to do lower case letters in the middle of sentences. I want to do better with crossing out words.”

Dannie included the following self-assessment in a math portfolio sample in March: “I think that I am learning double-digit addition very well. I also think that I am getting much better at double-digit subtraction. I would like to get all my multiplication facts on paper (snap!) just like that.”

Julie writes about her March math portfolio choice: “I picked my subtraction stories because they show that I can do subtraction math facts. My goal is to practice my times tables.”

The portfolio choices also show how the students tried to meet the goals they had set. For example, Jeffrey selected a story for his portfolio this February and wrote: “This story shows that I can use describing words in my story, like ‘favored,’ ‘hard-hitting,’ and ‘best.’ I want to have more exciting titles.”

Jeffrey’s next portfolio selection in March shows how he worked toward and met his previous goal and how he then set a new goal. He wrote: “This story shows that I can write an exciting title. I want to get better at spelling really, really hard words.”

Jenna’s November 1995 writing choice focused on the content of her story, but she set a goal about the way she edits her stories. She was then able to find a story in March that demonstrated she felt she had reached her goal. She wrote in November: “My story about my dog shows that I can use details and good sentences.

I want to learn how to cross out more and not erase.” The following March she wrote: “My school story shows I know how to cross out and not erase. I want to learn how to do quotation marks.”

After the children write their comments I sit down with them for a mini-conference. This is their chance to explain and defend their portfolio to me. I then write some comments for them to review before they bring their portfolio home. Here are some examples of my written comments.

“Michael: You made an excellent math portfolio choice. You have really mastered double-digit addition. I like your goal about subtraction. You’ll have to work hard, but I know you can do it.

“I also want you to start practicing measuring things at home. Take a ruler and go wild. Measure anything in your house you would like. Also, don’t forget to practice fractions.

“Keep up the great work.” “Mr. Osten.”

“Jordan: You have made a lot of good progress with telling time. Good portfolio choice.

“I know sometimes you get very nervous when you are doing math. Remember that it is OK to make mistakes and get things wrong. That is the only way you will ever get better at math. Every mistake you make is a chance to learn something new. My goal for you is to raise your hand more and take a chance with math problems. Also, don’t forget to practice fractions.

“Keep trying your best.” “Mr. Osten.”

5. Portfolio assessment works well when combined with activities in which students regularly assess their own and their team’s performance. At least once a day I ask students to assess themselves in quick five-minute discussions about their accomplishments and areas in which they need to improve their work or social skills. This regular routine helps students develop sharper analytical skills, which come in handy when it’s time for portfolio selections.

It also gives them opportunities to let me know what their needs are. For example, every week each student does a quick assessment of their work in Writing Workshop. From these comments I was able to adjust the environment to support these students specific needs. Here is one recent exchange:

Mr. Osten: Joe, how much time did you spend writing?

Joe: Some of the time. Mr. Osten: Why?

Joe: Because I was drawing a lot.

Mr. Osten: What will help you get more writing done?

Joe: I can do my writing first and then start drawing.

The students occasionally get a chance to do a report card on my performance. I stress that assessing one’s work and setting goals for improvement is a life-long process. This report card process also gives me another window into individual students’ needs as well as trends in my teaching. Here are some examples.

Mr. Osten: Do I help you enough with reading?

Justin: (Grade Check Minus) Because you should let me read with different people more and you should stop and listen to me read more.

Julie: (Grade Check Minus) Because you do not read with me a lot at my desk. Mr. Osten: Do I help you enough with Math?

David: (Grade Check) Because I want to work with higher numbers.

Patty: (Grade Check Minus) I think that you can come to me a lot more and sit down with me a lot more to help me.


As I have worked with my students on portfolio projects, I’ve hit many obstacles and learned a lot. A major problem, for example, has been helping the children develop language to use when assessing their work. Second graders often use simplistic language to describe their work, like “it was fun,” or, “I did a good job.” I’ve had to spend a lot of time in one-on-one conferences with the kids to get them to better verbalize their thoughts.

Another problem has been getting the children to focus on the content of their work instead of the mechanics. In math and writing, the students often looked for visual things like neatness or punctuation. This has also required a lot of small group and one-on-one discussions, in which I ask the children to explain clearly all of the things they are proud of in a certain selection. In math, I try to get the children to focus on “problem solving” instead of simple mechanical math.

A third problem is that the children often forget the goals they set for themselves in a portfolio choice. My assumption had been that if a student sets a goal, they would work on it. But I have to do a lot of reminding in the one-on-one conference. I also have students who are notorious for setting goals they have already reached or they know they will reach very soon. I try to get them to set their sights high, without setting them so high they can’t succeed. It is a difficult dance.

I am also trying to better incorporate Howard Gardner’s theories of “multiple intelligences” and give the children different ways to demonstrate their knowledge. The students currently all try to fit into the mold I’ve cast, instead of my creating more diverse opportunities.

Finally, I’ve fallen prey, as many teachers do, to poor goal setting. Sometimes I forget that I’m in the room with 24 seven year-olds. I expect them to think, discuss and assess themselves in ways that they may not be cognitively able to.

Next year, I have the good fortune to take my second grade class onto third grade. I’m excited about the chance this presents for expanding the scope of the portfolio project. I hope to get more parents involved and to make the portfolios part of our parent-teacher conferences. I also hope to work with fourth grade teachers to see if they will continue portfolio projects with my students when they move on from my classroom. In this, as in all my portfolio work, I am sure that there will be successes and failures — but that either way, it will be a valuable learning experience.

The article expands on an essay that originally appeared in the Spring 1996 newsletter of the National Coalition of Education Activists.