Ditching the Report Card

Industry News
Digital Portfolio Tools Turn Traditional Grading on Its Head
Chris Besse

Portfolios and assessment tools have come a long way in the past ten years. Technology now allows teachers to provide stakeholders with a transparency into the learning process. The most significant impact has been allowing teachers to capture learning and to provide feedback on the go, rather than waiting until the end of term to communicate learning via report cards.

After capturing learning, teachers can use digital portfolios to provide personalized feedback to their students, while also allowing teachers to collaborate with student’s parents and show them real progress reports. Research shows that increasing parental involvement visibly improves student outcomes.

Today, we are lucky to have powerful tools that capture evidence of learning in our pockets. Documenting student learning shouldn’t be a chore. Aggregating tasks into a single solution can save a lot of time and effort both for the teacher and the student. I am a firm believer that students shouldn’t have to ‘stop’ the learning to go and upload an artifact to their portfolio, or worse, schedule time in the computer lab to reflect on what was completed days before. Modern portfolio tools can allow for quick documentation on the go with minimal disruption.

With support from technology, cognitive science and public policy, many schools are developing new ways of assessing and grading students. While old grading systems tend to focus on “products of learning,” which assumes that all learning can be quantified, there is an increasing recognition that soft skills matter as much, if not more than content. Schools are looking for ways to measure them and turning to technology which can combine a traditional approach to grading with ongoing feedback, allowing teachers to celebrate successes in the classroom and highlight areas of improvement.  

Grading What’s Important

On its own, taking a piece of student work and assigning it a grade or a score based on criteria can signal an end to learning. For example, assigning a student a grade for a piece of writing does not necessarily help a student improve his or her writing, or motivate them to improve as a writer. Learning is a lifelong journey for all of us and encouraging students to understand that will have long term benefits.

Thanks to research that validates observational data, we are seeing educators shifting their assessment model across Canada and the United States. Educators are seeing immediate benefit from this type of assessment, and are helping to drive the train towards a real-time assessment model. Michele Green-Hansen, a teacher in Stratford, Ontario, Canada has found remarkable success: “I have students go back through their portfolios, identify what they have and haven't done and read my feedback and apply the suggestions,” said Green-Hanson. “Students are truly learning... improving... since I started using a digital portfolio.

“They are actually speaking French (what I teach) because they have to record themselves into the app. My evaluations are better because of the evidence I am collecting, especially evidence of speaking which was always hard to evaluate. Now that I am in the middle of writing report cards, I find that the comments are easier to write than determining the mark. Because I can see their work in their portfolio and can refer back to it and note the improvements.”

Educators and leaders have been making positive changes for their communities with portfolio and assessment tools in many ways we did not expect or anticipate. In some cases, educational leaders are using digital portfolio and assessment tools to replace traditional reporting altogether. For example, in the Surrey School District of 70,000+ students, educators are using ongoing progress and summary reporting as an alternative to reporting on test scores alone.

We are also seeing educational leaders in the United States using digital portfolio and assessment tools to focus on personalized learning. In Los Altos, California, educators are increasing communication for all stakeholders by setting focused personalized learning goals for their students. Students, parents, and teachers document and track progress towards goals, providing transparency and personalization towards the learning journey.

Many teachers and leaders already believe in a more diverse approach to teaching and assessment but unchanged traditional assessment policies and tools are restrictive. For example, personalized learning accommodates student diversity, but one-size-fits-all assessments are still used to measure their progress.

Educators and leaders previously lacked alternatives to bridge the gap, but now the technology is readily available. What is standing in the way of putting grades and achievement in perspective is a national focus on scores. Once federal, state/provincial and local organizations start utilizing alternative ways for students to show what they know and are able to do, we may see a shift toward a more accurate view of learning represented.

The movement to this new approach to assessment is a process. That’s understandable. Monitoring the health of the overall system is a very high stake proposition. My advice is a gradient approach—focus on classroom assessment for adapting instruction to the individual needs of students.

Going District-Wide

For districts, moving to a more student and classroom-centered approach to assessment gives more credibility to the learning happening day-to-day. It can become the priority versus a test score or grade. It should be, as the results are likely more valid and reliable. In addition, the learning that is captured through more authentic pieces of evidence is a much more effective approach to informing instruction.

The thought of capturing a child learning in the classroom through online video, audio or photo and then opening that experience immediately to a parent is exciting for educators. Educators love the immediate online feedback the parents give to both their student/child and to them as the teacher. Parents no longer need to wait for report cards three time a year to discover how their child is doing.

Chris is the President and COO of Freshgrade and is passionate about growing and transforming the education sector. He has more than twenty years of experience as a director and contributor on numerous Boards and Committees exploring innovation and excellence in education. He currently sits on the Board of Directors for Free the Children.

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