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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.