Trends in ESL – Portfolio-Based Assessment

Trends and Roles Blog — Trends

Image borrowed from Ashley Tipton.

Image borrowed from Ashley Tipton‘s teaching blog.

Stay in education long enough, and you’ll be able to identify the relative age of instructors by the buzzwords they drop in staff room conversations. Teachers today do not refer to “the Three R’s” — not in the original sense of ‘Reading, Rhetoric and Reasoning’ nor in the Americanised ‘Reading, ‘Riting and ‘Rithmatic’. Nor should they nod to the fact that “Johnny can’t read”. Since these much simpler times (and admittedly inaccurate ones much of the time), educational vocabulary — what some derisively call ‘Educanto’ — has shifted with such consistency that exasperated teachers have responded through rebellion, retirement, or the creation of snarky websites like the Educational Jargon Generator.

Sometimes this jargon isn’t unnecessary rebranding of existing concepts, such as ‘gym class’ becoming ‘physical education’ becoming ‘kinetic wellness’. New phrases and terms occasionally highlight a legitimate, necessary shift in pedagogical approach. So it is with the emergence of two of the most common utterances in English staff rooms and departmental meetings: ‘Portfolio-Based Assessment’ and its acronym ‘PBA’.

Portfolios collect assignments and minor assessments throughout a term, then assign a grade of completion; students are given more flexibility and control over how and when they attack and organize their learning. This contrasts greatly with standardized testing, which applies great emphasis upon preparation for single-day assessment in mid-term or final examinations. Anecdotally, I can report that many teachers concur with the theory of PBA.

With few exceptions, however, they resist the move away from testing, borne of two main sources of reluctance: familiarity and workload. Most instructors were themselves assessed through final papers and exams, so they value this form of evaluation. They’ve already used examination-heavy methods for years, in some cases decades, so change is difficult. To make things worse, PBA is a much more time-intensive method of assessment. Tests, especially the multiple choice and short answer forms favoured by many course designers, can even be passed off to assistants or the students themselves for marking. There are no answer keys or easy percentage calculations in PBA, however; instead, complex subjective marking rubrics must be learned and consistently applied.

Over the past few weeks I’ve waded through material like this Bow Valley College recommendation for implementation of PBA governmental pieces like this Saskatchewan policy paper / persuasive piece, and the more personal, such as Sarah Trudell’s critical survey of 1990s PBA literature.

I am preparing to meet the challenge of mandatory PBA by voluntarily introducing elements from the proposed curricula in my current classroom. I have given students folders in which they should maintain a record of all drafts, essays, quizzes and exercises. They have been asked to arrange this is a visually appealing way for the end of the term, and will have an opportunity to assess their own portfolios as well as those of their peers. The final course grade will then comprise elements from final examinations, weekly quizzes, peer assessment, self assessment and teacher evaluation.

It has been, I’ll admit, a terrifically remarkably hellishly time-intensive term. Time has been spent learning and/or creating new rubrics and applying these parameters to more and different assignments. Somewhat surprisingly, more extra time has gone into justifying the value of portfolios to students than anything else. Many of them are even more reluctant to let go of standardized testing than are we as teachers. This term, they still have final exams, so learners used to structured, standardized tests can hold onto that bastion of familiar evaluation. It will be interesting, as PBAs gain prominence, to see if the disappearance of finals has a lasting effect upon future students who aren’t taught to expect them.


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