It Belongs to Me: A Guide to Portfolio Assessment in Adult Education
Adult Literacy Resource Institute/SABES
Boston Regional Center
It Belongs to Me: A Guide to Portfolio Assessment in Adult
Education Programs, by Hanna Arlene Fingeret
For educators at all levels who are dissatisfied
with standardized tests as the primary or sole means of student
evaluation, and who are exploring various paths in whats come
to be called alternative assessment, the use of portfolios
and portfolio assessment is one of the major options. Yet the concept
of portfolios is not always clearly understood, and many practitioners
who are interested may have questions about how to implement this
Hanna Arlene Fingeret, a well-known adult educator who works with
the Literacy South organization in Durham, North Carolina, was recently
commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education to conduct a study
of portfolio assessment in the world of adult literacy. It Belongs
to Me: A Guide to Portfolio Assessment in Adult Education Programs,
the result of this study, is designed to introduce adult literacy
educators to the concept of portfolio assessment, and to provide
some guidance about how you can incorporate portfolio assessment
into your work in adult literacy education. It provides a
clear, succinct, and very useful introduction.
Fingeret conducted both an extensive literature review and a wide-ranging
series of interviews with more than 50 students, teachers, administrators,
staff developers, and other practitioners across the country who
are using portfolios in their adult literacy teaching and learning.
Quotations from these interviews pop up throughout the text and
constitute an important feature of this guideimportant because
so much of the literature on portfolios has emerged from the K-12
or college contexts, while these quotes present voices from the
field of adult literacy; important, too, because they ground the
discussion in reality in ways that no summary of findings by an
author can ever really do; and important because, while acknowledging
the difficulties of implementing portfolio assessment, these practitioners
and learners clearly demonstrate their enthusiasm for the use of
portfolios and their words will encourage others to move forward
into this area as well.
It Belongs to Me begins with a brief discussion of what
is meant by the term portfolio assessment. A portfolio
is defined here as a selection of various materials that have been
chosen from other, larger, on-going collections of materials related
to a students work and achievement, both inside and outside
the classroom. All sorts of items could be included in portfoliospieces
of writing, written responses to reading, reading logs, daily work,
checklists, special projects, to name a few of the possibilities.
The distinction between the portfolio itself and the folders or
other containers from which materials are chosen for
the portfolio is an important one and is not merely a matter of
semantics or simply an issue of quantity. The process by which students
review their work, select certain items for inclusion in the portfolio,
and then assess this collection is probably the crucial aspect of
the whole approach as Fingeret describes it. The value of using
portfolio assessment lies not just in its passive productthe
collection of items representing various aspects of a students
work and achievementbut also in its active process, as a student
gains valuable understanding of his/her own learning and accomplishments
through selecting material for his/her portfolio and then assessing
this portfolio collection itself. As writers Zessoules and Gardner
note in an article on alternative assessment quoted by Fingeret,
No longer a weapon for rooting out and combating students
weaknesses, assessment becomes an additional occasion for learning.
Having looked at what portfolio assessment is (and isnt),
Fingeret then takes readers through a cyclical, four-stage implementation
process organized under the headings of 1) choosing, 2) planning,
3) implementing, and 4) evaluating and revising portfolio assessment.
Stage One asks teachers who are thinking of trying portfolio assessment
to begin by deciding whether portfolio assessment is consistent
with their views of literacy, instruction, and assessment. Fingeret
reviews the various ways in which literacy is seen in the U.S. at
this time, the different approaches to adult literacy instruction
that exist within the field, and the current issues surrounding
the use of standardized tests vs. various types of alternative assessment
in adult literacy. She notes that portfolio assessment is
compatible with instruction that approaches literacy as a process
of constructing meaning, in a learner-centered way, but that
if you find that you support a more skills-based view of literacy,
or that you see assessment as dependent on standardized test scores
and the judgments of outside experts, then portfolio assessment
will not be appropriate for your classroom or program.
Teachers who elect to embark on a voyage of portfolio assessment
are then shown in Stage Two a five-step planning process in which
they begin to make decisions about and start to develop:
- the focus for the portfolio assessment process (for example,
writing, reading, math, everything) and how pertinent materials
will be collected in an on-going way in folders or other containers;
- the schedule by which students will review the material in their
folders and develop their portfolios;
- the criteria to be used by students in selecting material for
- the process students will use in making choices and moving materials
from folder to portfolio; and
- the criteria and process for assessing the contents of the portfolios
on a periodic basis. Teachers are urged to work with and get support
from other teachers while involved in this planning process (as
well as during the other stages of portfolio assessment).
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As one teacher says, The fact that I met with four other
staff members on a regular basis was extremely helpful. It kept
us motivated and kept the momentum going of the pilot project....
Support is really important when youre piloting portfolio
assessment. You can make this exploration a solo flight, but
its better to go with others.
Stage Three focuses on implementing portfolio assessment by following
through on all the planning that was done in Stage Two. First, introduce
the concept of portfolio assessment to students and encourage them
to begin to think of portfolios as an integral part of instruction.
Students then continue on with this processcreating folders
to collect materials, developing criteria for choosing materials
to move from the folders to their portfolios, actually reviewing
materials and making selections, and assessing the portfolios of
assembled materials. Though usually based on the general guidelines
developed by the teacher during the planning stage, the specifics
of the portfolio assessment process will emerge out of a (probably
on-going) process of reflection, negotiation, and decision-making
by the students themselves, both individually and as a class.
Stage Four calls for teachers to evaluate the portfolio assessment
process they have tried out and to make changes as needed. Since
there is no perfect recipe for carrying out portfolio assessment
and since it is seen as a cyclical process of reflection, planning,
implementation, and evaluation, teachers may want to circle back
to any of the previous stages before continuing on.
It Belongs to Me ends by stepping back to look at the impact
of portfolio assessment on students and teachers, at the process
of implementing portfolio assessment at the program level, and at
what steps are needed to support the continued growth of portfolio
assessment in adult literacy. There are also an appendix containing
a few sample documents used by some programs in their portfolio
assessment process and an annotated bibliography of materials dealing
with portfolio assessment.
Part of the on-going message of this guide is that doing portfolio
assessment isnt easy. Its usually not something that
either teachers or students are accustomed to doing, and getting
comfortable with the process can take some time. Gathering materials
for folders is much easier in some areas (such as writing) than
in others (such as oral language use). Various cultures may vary
in how they regard the idea of individuals highlighting their own
achievements. Reporting the results of portfolio assessment to funders,
evaluators, and policy makers is not a simple process. Working conditions
in the field are often not conducive to doing portfolio assessment,
which requires sufficient time (for staff development, planning,
and preparation) and sufficient space (for secure storage of folders
and portfolios). Fingeret and her commentators do address
all these issues. Yet, without minimizing the difficulties, they
also make clear that doing portfolio assessment is worth it.
Summing up its impact, Fingeret says, Portfolio assessment
is practical and useful, according to the practitioners and students
who participated in this project. It redefines the scope of assessment,
and provides a way to look at personal development as well as academic
skill growth as reflected in new literacy practices. It facilitates
a deeper level of reflection for students, and a deeper level of
communication between students and teachers. It also promotes professional
development and practitioner inquiry.
Here are a few brief quotes from some of the teachers, administrators,
and staff developers who contributed to this project:
In all my experiences, students are really excited about portfolio
assessment and they feel, This makes sense.
Its empowering to students, and thats what I emphasize,
how a portfolio helps students become independent learners and take
responsibility for assessing their own work.
Portfolio assessment has minimized student attrition, and it
seemed to keep staff better too. Portfolios help adults see where
theyre at and therefore they stay.... Portfolios value teacher
judgment; by giving multiple choice standardized tests, the message
is that nobodys judgment counts except for the test publisher.
When we did the share last year and people shared their portfolios
there was a lot of pride.... With the portfolio the students saw
exactly where they improved, they saw the kind of gain. People still
talk to me about that.... They definitely want to continue with
Students, too, had positive things to say about the process. Lorna
Irizarry, for example, is a student in New York, and it is from
her words that the title for this report was taken. She says, What
I learned from my portfolio is that Ive achieved what I wanted.
I feel relaxed. It belongs to me. Its for me to know,
and Seeing my progress in the portfolio makes me know I can
do the work.
There is, of course, no one size fits all set of specific
instructions for how to set up and do portfolio assessment. How
it works out for one program, one teacher, one group of students
will vary a great deal from what happens in other places, at other
times, with other people. And its also important to remember
that portfolio assessment isnt the only possible approach
to take when embarking upon alternative assessment; many other ideas
have been presented here in the various issues of Adventures
in Assessment and elsewhere. Fingerets guide, however,
should provide a very helpful framework for teachers interested
in trying out this particular approach.
Copies of It Belongs to Me can be obtained free of charge
by writing to the Clearinghouse, Division of Adult Education and
Literacy, U.S. Department of Education, Washington, DC 20202-7240;
FAX (202) 205-8973.
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This article was published in Adventures
in Assessment, Volume 5 (October 1993), SABES/World Education,
Boston, MA, Copyright 1993.
Funding support for the publication of this document
on the Web provided in part by the Ohio State Literacy Resource
Center as part of the LINCS
Assessment Special Collection.