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Portfolio Assessment: Benefits Outweigh Extra-Work Fears
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Each week, an educator takes a stand or shares an Aha! moment in the classroom in the Education World Voice of Experience column. This week, educator Kathleen Modenbach reflects on her use of a streamlined writing portfolio assessment that was beneficial to her and her students -- and didn't mean a lot of extra work for her! Included: Share your favorite writing ideas!


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As I hurried before semester grades were due to grade 146 writing portfolios -- each with six essays! -- I realized how valuable a tool the writing portfolio is for my high school English students and me. It's extra work for me, yes, but the more my students write, the better their writing becomes. Their voices have emerged in their writing, and I am proud of their efforts.

Portfolios have become a major element of assessment reform. They were a new concept to me this year. During my yearlong sabbatical, I had thought about how I might approach writing portfolios, but I had foolishly forgotten the labor involved in frequent essay grading!

Join Discussion
Have you a favorite topic for student essays? Below, I have shared a couple of this semester's writing lessons that my students seemed to enjoy most. I hope you will click here to share a favorite writing idea that all of us might consider!

* Peanut Butter Essay.
These essays were great! OK, I knew that assigning an essay in which students pretend to be a jar of peanut butter would bring out creativity, but the variety of essays was amazing! One senior pretended to be peanut butter swirled with strawberry jam. Some revealed the loneliness of being closed up in the pantry all day. Others described being stabbed as a knife was inserted.
* Abigail Adams's Letter.
I shared a letter that Abigail Adams, the wife of President John Adams, wrote to her daughter about the big change in her life after moving into the White House. (My source was the Glencoe Literature Program, Grade 11.) Then I asked my students to write about a change in their lives and how it affected them. One student wrote about his mixed reactions to his brother's going away to college.

There must be a solution to all that end-of-quarter reading and grading, I prayed. Sure, some teachers had taken to assigning shorter essays to counter the impact on their time that portfolio grading takes. As a writer, though, I know frequent writing is better.

Still, I could not imagine tackling that huge pile of portfolios at the end of every grading period. At the end of the first quarter, I swore I'd never do it again. That's when I began thinking about alternative approaches. After considerable thought, I concluded that I didn't have to grade all six essays thoroughly. I came up with an approach that streamlined procedures and cut grading time. The end result is a thorough grading process that is beneficial to everyone involved.

This second quarter, my students' writing portfolios included six essays with revised rough drafts -- but, unlike last quarter when I graded all six essays equally, I had students select one essay to be graded more thoroughly than the others. That single essay would be worth 50 percent of the portfolio grade, I determined. The successful completion of the other five essays made up the other 50 percent of the grade.

That was not the end. I came up with other ways of saving time at the end of the quarter. In the last couple of weeks before portfolios were due, I used our weekly writing period to check my students' five essays and to offer advice to them that would help as they readied their selected essay for my review. That way, students knew what half their grade would be before they submitted their final portfolios. I had only the chosen essay to grade.

The benefits of my new approach to the portfolio process have far exceeded my fears of extra work. The greatest benefit is that my students have become better editors of their best essays. In addition,

  • All of this portfolio work and grading takes place before exam time. That alleviates end-of-quarter grading stress!
  • Students try to complete each week's writing assignment in a single class session. That is not a requirement; they can finish their writing at home. But practice in timing their essay writing helps prepare them for the timed writing section on the annual standardized tests they take.
  • Students are able to use essays in their first-quarter portfolio to help them gauge their progress and avoid repeating errors.

This approach to grading portfolios held one additional advantage for me: In the past, I would read 100 or more essays on the same topic. With my students' writing portfolios, I am grading essays on a wide variety of topics. What used to be a boring exercise for me is now much more interesting and fun!

I am fearlessly looking forward to next quarter's portfolio pile!


Kathleen Modenbach is an English teacher in Louisiana's St. Tammany Parish Schools. She teaches at Northshore High School and writes for The Times Picayune in New Orleans.

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Care to reflect on a classroom experience that opened your eyes? We're looking for teachers who would like to share an Aha! moment -- a moment in the classroom (or a moment of reflection outside the classroom) when you had a teaching epiphany? Or are you an educator with a unique opinion to share? Send a brief description only of an idea you might like to write about in Voice of Experience to voice@educationworld.com.



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