Help Students Develop Standards for
Evaluating Their Work

By Jim Henry

Portfolios have been part of my first-grade classroom for years, but recently I took portfolio assessment to the next stage by guiding my students to develop their own standards for evaluating their work and deciding what goes into their portfolios. Here's how we did it.

To Portfolios and Beyond

I moved toward portfolio assessment in my first-grade classroom when I realized that the kind of learning that was taking place could not be measured by unit tests and worksheets. My students were involved in problem solving. They were developing an understanding that there were often many ways to get to an answer and often many correct answers to a problem. In language arts, my students were choosing their own writing projects to work on and sharing their work with others. I valued this learning greatly, and I sought a form of assessment that could capture some of this magic. Portfolio assessment seemed the perfect solution.

Initially, I was thrilled with our portfolio system; my students' individual accordion folders bulged with projects. I panicked in February, however, when, while preparing students for a second round of portfolio sharing with their parents, I discovered that their writing wasn't improving. There was more of it, but there was little change in quality.

My students needed to develop an awareness of the characteristics of effective writing. I knew that I couldn't just dump a list of writing characteristics on them. To be meaningful, the writing criteria had to come from them.

Modeling Self-Assessment

I keep my own portfolio of many of the projects that I created with the kids during writing sessions. I've saved poems, songs, letters, nonfiction, and fiction, including our rendition of stories with highly predictable texts.

Sitting before my class, I emptied out my portfolio for all to see. I hadn't looked at the selections for a while, and I referred to them in a manner similar to how one might recollect old friends. I told the kids how I loved all these projects, and that they were all good. But, I told them, even though they were all good, some were a little more special to me than others. Then I labeled three index cards: "Good," "Very Good," and "Excellent." We discussed the words, then I decorated each card with crayons and taped them to the chalkboard to serve as headings.

I then reviewed each project and placed them under one of the headings. Students heard me thinking the process aloud (I tried not to divulge formal criteria for my decisions — we'd get to that later) and soon wanted to make decisions for me, but I told them that these decisions were mine. I wanted them to understand that a portfolio is a self-assessment tool, and that the decisions involved belong to its owner.

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Students Self-Assess

I gave a set of the three labeled index cards — which I prepared ahead of time — to each student to decorate. Soon the class was happily decorating the headings. I invited them to evaluate their portfolio projects, and students began poring over their portfolios, asking one another for advice. The conversations were rich with comparisons. I walked around the room and asked questions about their decisions.

Kneeling beside Todd's desk, I glanced at his journal entry about a family trip to the zoo. It was filled with sentence fragments and missing capital letters. I asked him why he had placed this under the excellent heading. With a huge grin he answered that his visit to the zoo was one of the greatest days of his life. I realized then that the criteria we would develop as a class would have to reflect far more than my mechanics-oriented goals.

Developing a Class Chart

After everyone had sorted their work into three piles, I wrote the three headings at the top of a sheet of chart paper. "What's the difference between an excellent project and a good one?" I asked. "What would you need to do to change a very good project into an excellent one?"

The children began to look at their portfolio selections with a more critical eye. "My excellent projects have color in their drawing," one student offered. "My handwriting is better in these," said another. "[My excellent pieces] are longer. I spent more time working on them," said a third child. With each student's comment, children glanced back at their work and reevaluated their decisions based on the unfolding criteria of their peers. However, I began to sense that students were devaluing projects that they hadn't deemed excellent. I reaffirmed the worth of the "nonexcellent" efforts by pointing out that many of these projects were rough drafts.

We continued to make observations about the characteristics of effective writing, recording our ideas on the chart paper. We made inferences: If an excellent project had all correct spelling, what might a very good project have? And how many misspelled words could a good project have? We agreed that an excellent project should have no spelling mistakes. My first graders raised their hands, eager to contribute to the discussion. I knew then that their writing would never be the same.

Adding to the Chart

For the rest of the year, our chart grew as students refined their ideas about effective writing. The students went about adding to the chart in a grassroots, democratic way that went beyond my expectation. For example, at one point during an informal portfolio conference with me, a student commented that all of her excellent projects had illustrations that used more than one color. She then recommended to the class that this characteristic be added to the chart. Another student picked up a copy of Blueberries for Sal by Robert McCloskey and said that this was an excellent book and that it had only one color. After discussion, the students decided that not every excellent project had to have every excellent characteristic from the chart.

Long-Term Benefits

The writing criteria my students hammered out thoroughly infused their work and their thinking. During class portfolio sharing, students often referred to the project they were presenting as excellent or very good, and articulated their reasons for thinking this. And I often observed students evaluating their projects with their three cards laid out on their desk. To ensure that the writing criteria stayed fresh in their minds, we formally did the index card activity each quarter.

I still have questions about the proper role of portfolio assessment in a first-grade classroom. Nonetheless, this process has provided my students and me with an opportunity to develop writing criteria.

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