As California schools increasingly focus on preparing students for college and careers, a growing number of educators are turning to end-of-year “portfolios” as indicators of whether students have acquired the skills they will need to succeed after graduation.
The portfolios, which can consist of a compilation of a student’s work or an in-depth research project, can help prepare students for college, where they will be expected to work on longer projects and persevere despite obstacles, a quality that is often referred to in the field as “grit.”
A world apart from multiple-choice tests, or even the more in-depth Smarter Balanced tests that millions of students take each spring, the portfolios are the end product of months of intense collaboration, research, critical thinking and multiple revisions that students typically present in their senior year. Students have to defend their portfolios before a panel of teachers, fellow students or even outside members of their community. In some high schools, a portfolio is a graduation requirement.
“We ask our students to show us your best work, explain your best work and demonstrate your knowledge in the way the real world works and the way college works,” said Carmelita Reyes, principal of Oakland International High School, which requires portfolios of all students. “Do these problem-solving tasks, write essays, do multiple drafts, fix it, refine it and then present your learning and defend it.”
Portfolios are what educators refer to as “performance-based assessments,” as opposed to standardized assessments that mostly test a student’s knowledge by asking them to answer specific questions, and which often have just a right or wrong answer. Portfolios typically consist of a collection of a student’s work from core classes like history, science and English. A portfolio can also be an independent research paper on a socially relevant topic selected by the student or teacher. Some schools require both a collection of work and a research paper. In addition, some schools require a reflection paper in which students discuss their academic progress.
One of the most comprehensive uses of portfolios can be found at Oakland International High School. While most schools using portfolios require them for seniors, Oakland International for the past several years has been using the portfolio as a final assessment in 9th to 12th grade. All students are required to complete a portfolio and give a presentation in front of a panel of teachers and classmates at the end of each school year, Reyes said.
All students meet regularly with a faculty adviser for guidance on their portfolios. Reyes said the level of difficulty increases each year. For example, 9th-graders are required to present for a shorter time and generally produce reflection papers about what they learned in a specific class, whereas senior portfolios involve research-based work.
The portfolio approach is especially suited to the backgrounds of students at the school. Every student at Oakland International is an English learner who immigrated to the United States during the past four years. Students come from more than 30 countries and speak 32 different languages. Because of their lack of English proficiency and varying levels and quality of education in other countries, they typically do poorly on standardized tests in English.
Reyes said testing is still an important benchmark measure, but portfolios are a more authentic way to reveal what her students understand and how much they have learned. Portfolios also challenge students, she said.
“It’s really easy for a kid to go through the motions of taking a test and filling out the bubble sheets. Failing a test is pretty private and nobody knows but you and the teacher that you didn’t try or you’re not on task,” Reyes said. “When you have to stand in front of your peers, that’s a whole new level of accountability and kids really rise to the occasion in ways that don’t get captured in traditional testing.”
Across California, 34 high schools including Oakland International have formed a network to promote performance-based assessments. Called the California Performance Assessment Collaborative, it brings the schools and 12 districts together. It was formed a year ago as a “professional learning community” that meets regularly to discuss strategies to help students, share expertise and compare grading rubrics and best practices, said Roneeta Guha, a senior researcher with the Learning Policy Institute.
Guha said while performance assessments are not new to high schools, the purpose of the collaborative is to give schools across the state a structured way to discuss strategies, teaching practices and implementation.
“Statewide, a lot of the schools have been in the shadows doing portfolios and having an opportunity to come out and say, ‘This is the work we are doing, these are the assessments we believe in and let’s learn from each other and create some community of practice,’ that’s been really nice,” said Julia Kessler, principal of San Francisco International High School, which is a member of the collaborative.
Members of the collaborative range from charter school networks like Envision Schools, a group of three small charter high schools in the Bay Area with about 400 students per school, to larger urban schools like Oakland Technical High School with about 2,000 students. District size varies as well, from Pasadena Unified with four high schools to Los Angeles Unified with 97 high schools.
Guha said the collaborative plans to track each school through site visits and compile research findings that could encourage more local districts to adopt policies that support performance assessments.
Some members of the collaborative, such as Pasadena Unified, have taken a comprehensive approach to performance assessments. The district has made portfolios and defenses mandatory for all seniors starting in the 2019-20 school year. The portfolio and defense is a district graduation requirement and must be completed alongside standard course credit requirements and 40 hours of job shadowing, internships or community service.
For the past five years, portfolios and defenses were not required. Only seniors who wanted to earn a merit medallion for graduation and were also a part of the district’s college and career academies, which align coursework with career preparation, had the option. Marisa Sarian, assistant superintendent of secondary education for the district, said that meant only 40 percent of seniors had the opportunity to do a research-based portfolio at the end of their senior year. Instead of restricting portfolios to more advanced classes, the districtwide requirement ensures that every senior produces a portfolio and learns important research-based skills needed for college, she said.
Districts like Los Angeles Unified and Oakland Unified have not made portfolios mandatory, but schools have begun to implement them. Ten out of 14 high schools in Oakland, for example, are introducing portfolios and account for the largest group of schools among the collaborative’s membership.
Los Angeles Unified accounts for a smaller subset, with only two high schools in the collaborative. In 2015-16, 14 schools required portfolios and final defenses, said Esther Solimon, administrator for the district’s Linked Learning programs, which integrate high school academics with work experience. Solimon said that number is likely to grow to 20 schools as more high schools implement the assessments.
At San Francisco International High School, portfolio defenses are held in December and May. Principal Julia Kessler suspends classes for two weeks at the end of each semester so students and their advisers can dedicate that time to developing portfolios. Kessler said though portfolios and defenses are not mandatory by district policy, school guidelines help to convey their importance. Every portfolio and defense counts for 10 percent of a student’s final grade in every class, she said.
“If you’re a senior and you bomb your portfolio, you’re probably not going to pass your classes. So we give it as much weight as we can,” Kessler said. At the same time, it’s a manageable intensity because revisions are built into the process and teachers lend support by discussing students’ work with them, she said. The process also rewards improvement. “If you are struggling and you’re on the cusp, it’s an opportunity to really bring your grades up,” Kessler said about portfolios.
Students are encouraged to provide mutual support. “When you put them in the situation of having to support each other and hold each other up, they have a collaborative spirit,” Kessler said. The depth of student knowledge improves and so does the spirit of ‘We’re in this together,’” she said.
On the final Friday of the fall semester, seniors Yoselin Aplicano, Brenda Cortez and Yoselin Boyuin stood in front of about 30 of their classmates. The trio previously turned in individual research papers on the topic of “stereotype threat,” a concept developed by Claude Steele, now at the University of California Berkeley, on the social impact of conforming to misconceptions about one’s race, gender or sexual orientation. That morning, the three students gathered to present their work and field questions from students and two faculty members. The teachers sat at a table in the back of the room, with bright yellow paper rubrics and pens in hand, ready to grade.
Aplicano stepped from behind the podium at the start of the 30-minute presentation. She appeared calm and spoke confidently, rarely looking down at the notes on her computer. After the presentation, Aplicano, whose first language is Spanish, said her biggest concern for her “defense day” was becoming so nervous she would forget English.
But the weeks of preparation leading up to the presentation kept her nerves at bay. Aplicano said she read so much material she was eager to share it all. “At first we were stressed because we had to read like 60 pages on stereotype threat in one week,” Aplicano said. “But we just finished it, and it feels really good to know more about it, and it’s good to have knowledge about it (stereotype threat) so when it’s happening you can help to prevent it,” she said.
Just outside the classroom, during the 10-minute allotted break during presentations, Jason Enriquez sat next to a long row of gray lockers in a student lounge with his teammates. The group of four just finished the first presentation of the day, on the subject of human trafficking.
Team member Yaquelin Sanchez said she was so nervous her knees were shaking. Enriquez said he was nervous as well and wished they had practiced more. The last-minute rush to pull a presentation together wasn’t the best idea, he said. “I mean we can do better because I feel like we weren’t as confident,” Enriquez said. He said his group spent a lot of time writing for their individual portfolios, but less on preparing for the presentation.
Enriquez recalled the editing notes from teachers written on the first draft of the paper: “Revise your grammar again,” “Add more quotes” and “Explain what this means.”
In the end, the entire process was worth it, he said, smiling. Without the opportunity to revise his research paper, Enriquez said he would not have been able to answer the questions during the presentation. This spring, he will select a new research topic and prepare for a second round of presentations and defenses before he graduates.
Jeff Gilbert, lead co-principal at San Mateo Unified’s Hillsdale High School, the only school in the collaborative from his district, said the complexity of performance-based assessments is the primary reason a lot of schools, particularly large ones, won’t implement it.
Every teacher at Hillsdale, with its 1,400 students, is assigned four students who are working on portfolios and defenses. These have taken place at the beginning of March for the past three years.
“There is the ‘Why do we have to do this and other schools don’t?’ question,” Gilbert said, describing some student objections. “But then, there is this moment where they complete it and they are hugging and laughing and it’s the way students feel when they are a part of a drama production or won a game with a team they’re on. They should have that feeling in an academic setting, that ‘Oh, this is what it’s like to master something,’” Gilbert said.
Thanks for reading.
Can you help sustain our reporting?
Our team of journalists, editors, and fact-checkers do an estimated 440 hours of research every week to bring you the news on California education. That's a lot of work.