7 Important Questions Before Implementing Digital Portfolios

Connected Principals

Digital portfolios are something that are really starting to take off in schools.  There are different software programs that will make “portfolios” easy to share, yet do we truly embrace the power that a digital portfolio can bring into our schools?  Since it is “digital”, we need to go beyond a portfolio that only represents one year of learning, but can show the progression over time.

Here are some questions for you to consider as you look into the process.

  1. Is this a learning portfolio, showcase portfolio, or combination of both? – Does this show the student’s progression over time (learning), or just the best stuff (showcase).  There are huge benefits to both for learning and opportunities over time.  A combination of both in my opinion is best.
  2. Who owns the learning? – Is this a portfolio that only shows “school” work, or does the student have the opportunity to display what they are passionate about, or is it simply for items to be displayed based on what the teacher wants?  Is it a combination of both?  If the student feels no ownership over the process and product, the results will not be as powerful as if they do.
  3. How will it be exported after the process? – For starters, see the question above.  Secondly, if there is no plan to ensure that students have the opportunity to put all of this learning into their own space eventually, you are missing another opportunity that digital provides.
  4. How will you make the audience eventually go global? – A lot of parents and educators are worried about the work of a student getting “out there” (for various reasons), but if the portfolio is only available upon request, we are taking a very “paper” mentality, to a “digital” platform.  This does not meant the whole world has to see everything from the beginning, or the student needs to share it with the world if they do not want to, but the progression plan to share it with the world should be there.  Will the audience  be limited long term?
  5. What brings people to the portfolio? – Is there any mechanism that brings people to the portfolio other than telling people to come? Simple things like email help to build an audience.  Is the portfolio more likely to be seen and more valuable to the learning if it goes to people, other than people coming to the portfolio?
  6. What impact will this have on the learner’s digital footprint?Will Richardson suggests that by the time kids graduate grade 12, you should be able to google them and find good stuff about them (see image at the top of the post). Does the portfolio help in this endeavour when every student we work with now will be googled for jobs, university, or a myriad of other things.
  7. What about next year and other classes? – This is a HUGE question.  If the portfolio only lasts for one year, then you are missing a great opportunity. What professional learning is in place for teachers to support a connection of learning over time for the students?  What will the students work look like over time and how will they be able to google or search for their own learning?  If the plan is not in place to grow this over time, we lose so much from the process.

If these questions aren’t considered, I am wondering if we are just doing a digital version of “school”, or rethinking the opportunities digital now provides for learning in school?  This is more than just thinking about the software, but thinking about the potential of what this process can bring to our students and ourselves.


Holistic portfolios allow students to showcase all the best traits and qualities of themselves.

Common Sense Media

May 09, 2016
James Denby

Educator/Curriculum Developer

Student portfolios (especially digital versions) are a great idea. By providing the time and the means for students to collect things that document their challenges and successes, students become more metacognitive and invested in their growth and learning. However, the reality for many students (and teachers) is that portfolios have become a chore, a stale exercise — but it doesn’t have to be this way.

A few years ago, after hearing students’ groans every time I mentioned the word “portfolio,” I started to think wistfully of the days when students would actually get excited about the task. They would ask me or other students things like:

Should I include this in my portfolio?” “This isn’t specifically about reading, but it relates to a book I read. Does that work for my portfolio?” “I did such a bad job on this. I’m keeping it in my portfolio to show my old self how far I’ve come.

Through some simple changes, we can recapture the magic. We can ensure that portfolios live up to their promise, and, most importantly, we can help students see them as useful, personalized learning tools that are uniquely theirs.

Here are four tips for making student portfolios more meaningful.

1. Make time for the reflective process.

Schools generally acknowledge the importance of reflective practices such as portfolios, but at the end of the day, content and skills usually trump everything else. Teachers are under enormous pressure in these areas and often feel hard-pressed to find the time for portfolios. However, for students to produce a meaningful portfolio, we need to commit time to the reflective process that is consistently implemented.

Once time is provided to work on portfolios, educators should ensure students engage with some aspect of the portfolio process. If we simply say, “Work on your portfolios,” we are almost guaranteed to be disappointed by the results. To achieve a better result, consider mixing things up. Try the following:

  • A conference with students individually or in small groups
  • A peer conference
  • A brainstorming session
  • Students writing a reflection about their progress
2. Create one portfolio that addresses the whole student.

Portfolios can, and should, be about the whole student, not only English or math class. Our students are athletes, community activists, actors, and artists. They should be able to create one portfolio that reflects all those things, and it shouldn’t necessarily be limited to school. Encourage students to include:

  • Films they make for fun with friends
  • Music and songs they record
  • Fan fiction, stories, and poetry they write outside of school
  • Community service and athletic accomplishments

Artifacts that students create outside of school employ the same skills we work so hard to help them develop in our classes (and many times are great applications of what we’ve taught them), so why exclude those things from a portfolio? We can and should encourage students to include the things they’re passionate about. This type of portfolio reinforces the idea that what they create is theirs and not merely something we make them do.

3. Provide guidelines that encourage thoughtful choices.

Encourage students to choose portfolio artifacts that are reflective of their school and home lives, but make sure there are basic guidelines to help ensure that portfolios accomplish the academic purpose. Guidelines should be clear and include basic criteria such as:

  • Subjects that must be represented (all? Core? Arts?)
  • Minimum and maximum number of pieces
  • Inclusion of appropriate content (subject matter/topic/language)
4. Add variety to make portfolios pop.

One reason students bemoan the portfolio process is that they’re asked to do the same types of things in every class to get their portfolios “ready.” We can’t expect to ask students to select “two pieces you’re really proud of” at the last minute and expect them to be enthusiastic. Instead, we need to vary what we do (and what we ask them to do) with their portfolios just like we would with other activities in our classes. This type of coordination is perfect for team or grade-level planning — consider posting ideas on a calendar so teachers can roll them out on a schedule as the year unfolds. Consider encouraging students to create and include artifacts such as:

  • Struggles or challenges you have faced this year
  • Artifacts that show growth
  • Ways in which you have progressed this year
  • Videos in which students showcase things they’ve done
  • Demonstrations of newly developed skills (video work, photographs, other)
  • “Lessons” in which students teach a skill
  • Artifacts from outside of school that show application of school-related skills
  • Artifacts of collaboration or independence
  • Videos that address a student’s future self

The key to a great student portfolio is balance — students should have as many opportunities to express their reflective sides as they do their academic ideas. If we don’t get creative in how we approach our practice around portfolios, we can never expect students to sustain their interest. In the process, we will lose out on a valuable and personalized learning tool.

Digital Portfolios

The Power of the Process

By George Couros on May 11, 2016 05:41 pm

Attachment-1 (3)

I spent the day working with educators who are developing their own learning portfolios, before we embark on a journey of students going through the same process.  I truly believe that why digital portfolios have failed in so many places is that we are encouraging educators to teach them without learning how to do them first.  This, to me, is the equivalent of someone teaching math who has never learned math.  Though this process might be slower and not have students going through the process as quickly, it is the idea of going slow to move fast.  The depth of this project can be much deeper if educators think of the process from the point of the view of a learner, not the teacher.  Not only do these “blog-portfolios” help with educators understand the process through the viewpoint of a learner, it also helps in the following ways:

  1. Consistent focus on their own teaching and learning practices.
  2. Understanding how to develop their own digital footprint.
  3. Possibly creating future opportunities for teachers to write and present.
  4. Shared practices that help elevate teaching as a whole.

As we talked about this process, we discussed the idea of both “learning” and “showcase” portfolios. A “showcase” focuses on your “best stuff”, where learning shows growth over time.  I often find the notion of a learning portfolio is one that people struggle with because the growth in a year might be harder to see, so I showed them, what in my opinion, is part of the potential of a learning portfolio.  This link, “Artist Shows His Progression From 2 Years Old To 28“, displays the power of what you can see when you capture learning over time.  Check out the samples of work overtime:

Age 2Age 2


Age 5Age 5

Age 10Age 10

Age 28Age 28

(Check out the entire article to show the growth over time.)

Now the picture at 28 is quite amazing, but when you see it compared to where the same artist was earlier, it becomes much more powerful.  Yet this powerful learning journey has often been stored in our head, or been shown mostly in the form of numbers.

Showing growth over time helps us appreciate not only where learners are at, but where they have come from, which is something that we need to put more of an emphasis on in education.

Resources on Blogs as Digital Portfolios

The Principal of Change

As more organizations and classrooms are looking at “digital portfolios”, I wanted to compile some of the information I have either curated or created on the topic.  I really believe in creating a blog as a digital portfolio, which is more than simply a blog, and more than simply a portfolio, but a combination of the best of both worlds.  The blogging component is hugely beneficial to show growth of learning over time, while also developing multiple facets of literacy, while a “portfolio” adds a component that gives us an opportunity to show our best stuff.

A Blog/Portfolio (perhaps a “blogfolio”), is great for learning purposes because it gives the creator of the space an opportunity to showcase learning while building a digital footprint that will be beneficial long after their time in schools.  It also allows students multiple ways to showcase their learning since basically anything I can see or hear, I can now make digital and link into their space.  The possibilities are endless.

If you want to learn more about this process, please feel free to check out the links below.

“Who Owns the Learning” (Discussing why it is important that students have ownership over their portfolios)

5 Reasons Your Portfolio Should Be Online

5 Reasons Your Portfolio Should Be A Blog

Our Digital Portfolio Project

Curation as Portfolio Activity

Blog As Portfolio (Video)

Blog as Portfolio (Workshop)

Panel: Ditch Grades Now, Focus on Student Learning

The Journal

Teach without grades. Teach without tests. Teach without homework. That’s the message from a growing number of educators who are not only advocating but actually making substantial changes in their classroom practices by eliminating grades and scores entirely.

Sound like fantasy in this age of ubiquitous high-stakes standardized testing and “accountability” mandates?

It’s actually happening.

In American schools.

And it’s working for many of those who are trying it.

Educator and Hack Learning creator Mark Barnes is a leading voice in the movement to eliminate grades and test scores from students’ lives. For him, the transition from grading hasn’t been easy. But it has been necessary.

At a panel held at the SXSWedu conference last week in Austin, Barnes described how he came to question his own teaching practices that eventually led him to adopt gradeless teaching.

Shifting to Gradeless
For the first 15 years in his career in education, Barnes was, as he described himself, a very traditional teacher, and one who was failing far too many students year after year.

“My answer in the past when people would say, ‘Why do you have so many [students with] poor grades?’ was: ‘Well, the kids just don’t do the work.’ Or: ‘The kids are lazy.’ Or: ‘Their parents don’t bring them to school on time, and they fall behind. Their parents don’t make them do their homework. And all of these things lead to them not turning in their work, and they’re zeroed.’ So it was blame, blame, blame. It’s their fault or their parents’ fault; it’s not my fault.”

But, he said, after several years of that — and after a particularly gruesome year in which some 60 percent of his students received failing grades — “Finally, I took a long, hard look in the mirror and said, ‘This can’t always be their fault. It can’t always be their parents’ fault…. It’s got to be my fault.'”

He decided he either had to change or had to “get out” of the teaching profession “because it couldn’t continue to go that way,” Barnes said.

So he spent the summer reflecting on his teaching, researching alternative practices, learning about methods other teachers were using to help their students succeed and decided, simply, to do away with all traditional teaching methods, including homework, summative tests and all forms of grading — except, of course, the final grade that all teachers are compelled to provide. (More on that later.)

Giving Students Voice
So why gradeless? And what took the place of the traditional methods he’d abandoned?

Instead of grading students on their work, Barnes had “a conversation” with them. He used an online gradebook, but instead of applying grades or points or percentages, he recorded feedback and discussions with students. Instead of judging his students’ abilities at an arbitrary point in time by assigning a score, he guided them through a checklist that was designed to help them progress to where they needed to be. Instead of homework, he assigned projects that did not have a deadline or point value. In the gradeless classroom, there’s no “extra credit” because students aren’t working for points. There are no summative assessments. There are no zeroes. There’s only information that’s used to help drive the student forward.

“That’s what this is really about today,” he said, “shifting the conversation away from the traditional grade to a conversation, to transparency, to digital learning….”

(Barnes is particularly adamant about assigning zeroes for work that was not turned in by a student. As he noted, “We just don’t know” if the students have mastered the subject matter or not because “we haven’t seen the work. We don’t truly know what kids know [when they fail to turn in homework]. Quite frankly, that makes us failures. That’s a really tough pill to swallow. Once you do it, it really leads to incredible things.”)

More Work for the Teacher
The process is not an easy one. Eliminating grades and homework doesn’t mean less work for teachers. It generally means more, since the teacher has to create meaningful dialog with the students.

“A lot of what educators use, the traditional stuff, becomes a kind of crutch. It gets pretty easy,” he said during his well attended session at SXSWedu. “If you have a folder full of worksheets you can give students each year, that’s easy. If you have a bubble test that you can run through a machine, that’s easy. You just put the number on your online program, and it translates to a grade. That’s easy. But it’s not really good for kids.”

Switching to a gradeless system, Barnes said, requires a “systems change”: You can’t simply keep handing out the same old worksheets and simply decide you’re not going to grade them.

“You have to engage kids in learning,” he said. And that means project-based learning and using “checklists” to ensure that students get to where they need to be. Instead of judging, as Barnes explained it, it involves telling kids, “Here’s what I see,” then asking questions: “What would have happened if you had done this differently?” So it’s not about right or wrong on a set of problems. It’s about leading the student to understanding without judgement along the way.

And more work isn’t the only issue. In the first year of his new gradeless teaching practice, Barnes said, there was pushback from students, parents and administrators. But they all came around.

“What everybody started seeing was an incredible environment that was a little bit messy, a little bit chaotic, but was a place that was rich with independent learning,” he said.

That independence is what it’s all about: giving students the voice in their own education.

How Technology Helps
Barnes advocates the use of technology, including digital portfolios, to enable gradeless instruction. Portfolios, he explained, can also help keep parents in the loop on their children’s education.

“The best way to engage parents in the conversation,” he explained, “is to use a digital portfolio that makes it easy for them to be part of the conversation — it needs to be one-click, because we’re all so busy and overwhelmed with e-mail and social media ‘pings.’ Something like FreshGrade, which provides Web and mobile platforms, makes it easy because updates to each child’s portfolio are automatically sent to parents, and they can reply directly within the tool. Plus, it’s important for teachers to actively engage parents by asking questions and inviting feedback.”

He added that there’s so much in the digital space now that helps make it easier to capture learning and create those conversations with students and parents.

Peter Bencivenga, educator and president and COO of DataCation (a division of CaseNEX), shared the SXSWedu stage with Barnes. He noted the multitude of tools available to educators, so many of which are available without any financial investment whatsoever for the school (Google Apps, for example), that can help teachers with the one aspect of gradeless teaching that is absolutely essential: communication.

“There are so many tools that can be used to enhance this in your classroom,” he said. “What you see is that when you start having that communication with a student, and you start having … a conversation about learning, instead of, ‘Did you do this?’ — compliance — … you change the discussion [from grades to] learning. Compliance becomes a non-issue when you take out grades and have a conversation.”

Grading: Real-World Requirements
Now, a final grade for the students’ transcripts is, of course, compulsory. But for end of term grades, Barnes said he would not rely on the average of a set of scores compiled over the semester. Rather, he said, he would sit down with students and discuss what their final grade should be with them.

But even with the compulsory end-of-term grades, according to Barnes, students in gradeless classes are coming away with something more than a reductionist label representing a semester’s worth or work.

“We have something far better than scores when report card time rolls around,” he explained. “We have artifacts and feedback that provide a clear picture of learning. When a teacher reviews the body of work from a student and asks, ‘Where does this fit on a traditional grade scale?’ the student understands and provides accurate responses in almost every instance — at least as accurate as a traditional grade can provide.”

A Growing Movement That Needs Help from Higher Education
Since starting on this journey, Barnes has written several books on the subject of teaching without grades, and his ideas are catching on. He’s the founder of the Facebook Group Teachers Throwing Out Grades, or TTOG, which has so far attracted more than 5,500 members. Within online community, teachers share their individual stories, their declarations of independence from grading, their hopes, their fears, their best practices and their tips and techniques. And Barnes isn’t the only major voice in the movement. Author Starr Sackstein, who also blogs at Education Week, is a proponent of gradeless teaching. She’s also co-moderator of the TTOG Facebook group.

Barnes said the Facebook group has grown to its current size in just one year, and interest in the movement has reached the global scale, spanning a range of subjects, from English/language arts to math.

The limit on the movement’s right now is transcripts and the requirements imposed on teachers by policymakers and the universities that continue to require grade-based transcripts. That could change though with a little help from outside the K-12 system.

“It’s hard to make movements and strides,” Bencivenga said, “when the university level has not made those changes yet on how they’re accepting kids.”

“We need the help of all key stakeholders,” Barnes said. “Anyone at the college level, especially administrators, who show interest in shifting the conversation away from grades would be huge for the movement.”

Digital Portfolios

“Who owns the learning?” #DigitalPortfolios

Today, very little of the work we give students in school provides them with a sense that they are making a contribution to anything other than their own educational progress toward graduation.

In Alan November’s 2012 book titled, “Who Owns the Learning?“, he states the following:

Today, very little of the work we give students in school provides them with a sense that they are making a contribution to anything other than their own educational progress toward graduation. Indeed, once the grade is recorded, a huge amount of student work is thrown away. It has no more value. Now that we have powerful, easy-to-use design tools and a capacity for worldwide publishing, we have an opportunity to restore the dignity and integrity of a work ethic with redefining the role of the learner as a contributor to the learning culture.

This thinking was evident in my development of our digital portfolio project. As more and more educational technology companies try to break into the “portfolio” market, they seem to be more concerned with where the data is stored, then the students actually having access to keep their information.  Both should be considerations, but we often are more concerned on how we report to parents than we are about students developing and contributing learning that we have ownership over.

As we thought about helping staff feel safe with students putting their thoughts out there, while also ensuring students would have ownership over their learning, we decided to go with a blogging platform (specifically Edublogs but this will work for any WordPress hosted domain).  I have written extensively on the use of blogs as digital portfolios (please feel free to click to learn more about this process), but one of the considerations I haven’t share was how students would be able to take everything they have done in this space and create their own domain at any point, either during of after their time in learning.

What the hope of the project is a student will be able to share their learning their entire time in school, so you can see them (and they can see themselves) develop over time.  At the end of their time with their portfolio in school, they can go into their blog and do the following.

  1. Go to your WordPress Dashboard.
  2. Under “Tools”, select “Export”. It will then download an XML file.
  3. Open your own domain.
  4. Go to the WordPress Dashboard and under “Tools”, select “Import”.
  5. Upload the XML file.
  6. Done.

The point of this post is not to “sell” you on Edublogs or WordPress, but more focused on a few questions:

  1. How do you create a space where if something goes wrong educators feel comfortable that they have “control” and can intervene if necessary?
  2. Are your “digital portfolios” something that are created simply for school, or something more meaningful that the world could have access to see if the student chooses?
  3. Is the process of moving from one space to another, something simple enough and can be done by the students themselves?

As you move forward with your own projects, these are questions we should be asking to be proactive, not have students create years of work, only to delete or have under the control of the school.  If that is the case, the learning was never theirs in the first place.

Should high school students have to ‘defend’ their diploma like a Ph.D?

The Hechinger Report

California’s new way of ranking school performance could open the door to portfolio assessments

Seated in front of Magana in a classroom at Los Angeles High School of the Arts was a panel of three judges: the school’s assistant principal, a school coordinator, and a former student. The occasion was his senior defense. Magana was trying to convince the panel that he was ready to graduate.

He had 45 minutes to present a portfolio of three “artifacts,” one academic, one artistic, and one of his own choosing. The panel grilled him: Can you describe your research process? Which obstacles did you face and how did you overcome them? How will the skills you learned help with your future plans?

Portfolio assessments like this one, which look a lot like doctoral dissertation defenses, are on the rise in California. The practice, touted by educators nationwide as a proven path to college success, has largely been squeezed out by standardized tests, the quicker, less-costly measure of student performance. But the state’s reliance on test scores to rank school performance is about to change, and educators see an opportunity.

Since 1999, California has primarily tied school rankings to test scores, using the Academic Performance Index (API). Since its repeal in July 2013, the three-digit ranking has been undergoing revision. On the new API, which will debut in the 2015-2016 school year, test scores will account for only 60 percent of a school’s ranking. The other 40 percent will factor in graduation data and “proof of readiness for college and career.” Portfolio assessment can supply this data. The tricky part is convincing skeptics that these assessments are reliable.

Related: Stakes for “high-stakes” tests are actually pretty low

Zaira Gutierrez puts the finishing touches on her graduation portfolio in Isabel Morales’s 12th grade social studies class at Los Angeles High School of the Arts.

Magana’s presentation seemed to come off smoothly. He started with the personal statement he wrote for AP English about his father’s alcoholism and its effect on his family. Then he presented a model of a set for the play “Electricidad” that he built for Advanced Scenic Design class. He finished with a policy memo he wrote for AP Government on the high cost of rehab.

But when the panel asked him specific questions, Magana stalled.

“What policies already exist to help those who can’t afford rehab?” asked Cathy Kwan, the high school coordinator who is developing the portfolio model. She schedules the defenses, recruits panel members, and trains teachers.

Magana fell silent and looked off to the side. He had just argued in the memo that the price tag for alcohol rehab is prohibitive for minimum wage earners and that there should be policies in place to ensure alcoholics can get the help they need free of charge.

“I did research that,” he said. “But I can’t remember.”

Magana stepped outside the classroom while the panel evaluated his performance. The judges agreed his presentation skills were solid: he made eye contact, he knew how to hold the audience’s attention, and he was organized. But he failed to demonstrate content knowledge and sound research skills. Assistant principal Matthew Hein pointed out a “classic bad research move,” Magana’s admission that he “dismissed research that didn’t fit his opinion.”

The verdict: Magana would have to rewrite the policy memo and defend his work again.

This is only the second year Los Angeles High School of the Arts has required its seniors to do portfolio defenses. The seriousness of the process and the amount of work it takes hasn’t yet sunk in. “Students didn’t really take the defenses seriously enough,” says Kwan reflecting on this year’s presentations. “They thought we were just going to let them pass. They’d say to me, ‘I got this.’ And I’d tell them, ‘No, you don’t. You have to practice.’”

Making Portfolio Assessments Reliable

Kwan is struggling with the difficulty facing any educator hoping to use the portfolio model: defining a standard approach to evaluation. Harvard education professor Daniel Koretz knows this difficulty firsthand. He studied the portfolio models of Kentucky and Vermont in the 1990s, when those states were trying to replace standardized tests with portfolio assessments. The criteria for what makes a good portfolio, Koretz found, can vary widely from school to school, making comparisons difficult.

“The standardized assessment is standardized precisely so that there is nothing extraneous that differs between kids or between schools,” he says.

This problem has sent educators in California searching for an objectivity not usually associated with portfolio assessment.

A recent report from Stanford University professors Soung Bae and Linda Darling-Hammond promotes graduation portfolios as one measure of how well schools prepare students for college. The authors recommend that the state allow schools to use “well-designed” portfolios, comprised of work from each of five different subject areas to include research essays, art work and other sophisticated projects that can’t be captured on a test in place of traditional exit exams.

“There’s an openness in the legislature [to consider] what would be more indicative of college and career readiness than sitting down and filling in a multiple-choice Scantron,” says Darling-Hammond. “Some say U.S. kids are the most tested and the least examined in the world. We have a lot of tests, but we don’t have high-quality examinations of thinking and performance.”

Aiming to test the digital portfolio as a way of producing reliable data, Stanford’s Center for Assessment, Learning, and Equity (SCALE) has teamed up with ConnectEd, a Berkeley-based organization that promotes a mix of academic and career-centered school programs called “linked learning.”

The resulting online tool, ConnectEd Studios, tries to take the subjectivity out of evaluating portfolios. Students can earn digital badges for completing performance tasks. A student writing an argumentative essay, for example, can upload the essay to the site, where his teacher can evaluate the writing according to a scoring rubric with criteria for grading. A series of dots represents the progress of the essay: red dot (ungraded), purple dot (not proficient), and green dot (proficient). When the essay is deemed proficient, the student earns a badge.

“We see these badges as data nuggets,” says Dave Yanofsky, director of strategic communications for ConnectEd. “If done right, digital badges give you both the qualitative and quantitative component. It’s not just that the student turned in the work and got a pat on the back. These badges show that students turned in work that is up to the level of quality we established.”

The development of reliable portfolio assessments could have huge implications for how we judge school effectiveness, not just in California but nationwide. Yanofsky estimates that 20 school districts, including Houston and Philadelphia, have expressed interest in working with ConnectEd to build their portfolio programs.

The expectation is that an online platform like ConnectEd Studios would create a secure place for students to share videos, audio files, photos, writing samples, digital badges, resumes, and letters of recommendation, showcasing their qualifications for universities and potential employers.

“Students can sell themselves short,” says Nadia Schafer, a digital specialist with Philadelphia Academies, a nonprofit that works with area high schools to provide students with career training and college preparation. “But the portfolio shows them all that they’ve accomplished. A portfolio tells their stories so much better than just a resume ever could.”

Jorge Magana poses with his mother after earning a diploma from Los Angeles High School of the Arts. He failed his portfolio defense, but passed it on a second try.

For now, the goal at the Los Angeles Unified school district is to make the portfolio defense a graduation requirement. Ten high schools are piloting the initiative, and there are plans to get more schools on board next school year.

“Students have improved immensely since we first started,” says Kwan. “But it still wouldn’t be fair to hold them back based on the defense. We haven’t yet learned how to prepare kids adequately to do this.”

Half of the Los Angeles Unified schools testing portfolio defenses have partnered with Envision Schools, a network of three small charter high schools in the San Francisco area that has systematized the portfolio model over the past 13 years and can provide step-by-step instructions on how to build a portfolio program. L.A. teachers traveled to San Francisco to watch the Envision students’ defend their portfolios and to get training on how to critique them. Envision has shared videos of model defenses and scoring rubrics that L.A. teachers can revise to suit their schools’ specific needs.

Can Portfolios Make the Grade?

At first, many teachers at Los Angeles High School of the Arts thought the defense was an unnecessary torture. Then, they actually witnessed a defense.

“When you see your students reflect on what they’ve learned, and see how that learning has affected them, it’s hard to say this isn’t a good idea,” says Isabel Morales, a 12th grade social studies teacher. “Watching the defenses taught me how much my lessons count, how crucial it is for me to provide a transformative learning experience for my students.”

Morales says students can simply “go through the motions” in class, taking in information without really retaining it. But portfolio defenses force them to explain what they’ve learned, and to apply it in different ways; for instance, Magana tackled the issue of alcoholism as a statement on policy and in a personal statement. Since the portfolio program started, Morales has discovered that the best preparation for a portfolio defense is for students to share their work and reflections on what they learned in the process, something she didn’t always make time to do.

Realizations like this one are the most important outcomes of the defenses, according to Tom Skjervheim, associate director at ConnectEd. In fact, when Skjervheim views a defense, he finds himself evaluating the teacher more than the student. “The portfolio defenses shed a light for teachers on what they should be doing in professional development,” he says. “They allow teachers to think about how they might tighten up their practices and get the results they want from students.”

According to a survey of students at Los Angeles High School of the Arts, 90 percent of students who passed and 68 percent of students who failed said the portfolio defense was a “worthwhile experience.” Magana, who passed his second defense a week later, says he’s learned from his mistakes and won’t repeat them at the University of California Riverside, where he’ll major in computer science this fall.

“I’m worried that in college I won’t have anyone there to push me,” Magana says. “But I have this experience to refer back to. I will remember this. I won’t allow myself to fail again.”

Kwan is already planning ways to make the experience more worthwhile next year, including training teachers to revamp their lessons. She thinks teachers need to tell kids up front what they’re going to learn and why they’re learning it. “This isn’t as common as you might think,” says Kwan. “Kids often don’t know why they do assignments.”

Students will also get more opportunities to practice their presentations before the big day. Groups of four will be assigned a mentor teacher who will critique their portfolios and presentations. Eleventh graders will assist during senior defenses, by switching slides or serving as panelists, gaining a sense of what will be expected of them the next year. Tenth graders will participate in mini-defenses in front of their classes.

While Kwan is intent on perfecting the process, she worries that portfolio assessment could become rote in pursuit of data. The Envision Schools have the defenses “down to a science,” she says. Students start to sound robotic when they’re all saying the same things, she adds.

Success, for Kwan, depends on a continuous evaluation of the process, not on routine. What counts as a real demonstration of learning?

“Many visitors are impressed that students are speaking in front of an audience,” Kwan says. “They don’t notice that the presentation is disorganized or that the students are having trouble answering the judges’ questions. It’s not good enough that students face a difficult task. They have to go up there and have substance. Just because you show up to an interview doesn’t mean you get the job.”

Of the 92 seniors who defended their portfolios this year, 33 failed. Like Magana, they were scheduled to redo their presentations.

But, in the end, all students passed and nabbed diplomas.

“They worked their tushes off,” says Kwan. “Not one of them gave up.”

This story was written by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about California schools.