HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal
From Report Cards to Portfolios
Reading and editing progress reports were the most painful parts of my first year as principal of the Columbus Jewish Day School. At best, the progress reports relayed a snapshot of a student’s growth over the last grading period. With some oddly specific standards thrown in, perhaps parents were able to understand what skills their child was mastering and where their child needed more support. At worst, the progress reports contained generalized statements of “___ is such a pleasure to have in class,” with almost no specific content information and little insight for parents as to where their child stood with regard to grade level norms. Given the rich, integrated and robust academic program offered at our school, our progress reports were not doing justice to the many ways that a student was learning and growing.
The critical missing components in our progress reporting system were as follows:
a) The progress reports lacked specific content information and could not illustrate specific strengths or weaknesses of students.
b) The progress reports did not give parents a clear picture of their child’s standing with regard to academic standards.
c) The progress reports were disconnected from parent-teacher conferences in both timing and content.
The first solvable issue was timing: The following school year, progress reports were released the week before conferences took place, so that teachers and parents could speak directly about the reports, clarify what they were seeing and making plans for moving forward.
Still, the reporting itself was missing key components. A colleague and I began to research models being used at other schools, and we loved the idea of portfolios. I found myself reluctant to transition to this model because I knew I would be asking a lot more of my faculty, and from a human resource frame, I did not want this to cause ill will. I soon realized, however, that the faculty also felt frustrated with our progress reports. In addition, most teachers were already in the habit of collecting artifacts of student learning throughout the year and of using these to illustrate their comments during conferences.
I began to research online platforms for portfolios. If we were going to embrace portfolios, they had to be digital. Simultaneously, I began to create guidelines that could help manage the workload of the teachers as they created the portfolios: only 1-3 artifacts per subject area, focusing comments on the specific work of the child, and no more than 3-4 sentences. The change started to feel doable, and so at our spring in-service, I let teachers know that this was coming in the fall.
My first, and biggest, mistake was in choosing the digital platform for the portfolios. I screened several different LMS (Learning Management System) platforms to find one that both supported a portfolio format and was within our price range. In addition, we were looking for a system that would be relatively user-friendly, as not all of our faculty were tech-savvy. The system that we chose seemed to meet all of those criteria.
One faculty member acted as our beta tester. We developed the format for the portfolios and worked out user-friendly instructions for the faculty. Unfortunately, despite our careful planning, the portfolio segment of the LMS system we had chosen was underdeveloped, clunky and prohibitively time-consuming. Each artifact took about 10 clicks to get to the right spot, and then the uploading of a photo or video took an incredibly long time. From a parent perspective, the portfolio setup was not intuitive and required that the parent click around to each subject area bucket. While some parents clicked through everything, many did not.
By the end of the second round, I could see that my human resources worries had come to fruition. This process was taking up so much time and energy that the faculty could barely function in the weeks before the portfolios were released.
That said, the portfolios were amazing. Several parents expressed their pleasure and excitement at this incredible new window into their child’s work. We could literally see, hear and watch student progress through actual artifacts, sound bites and videos of their work. This was definitely the right move for us, just not the right platform. So I formed a faculty task force.
I began the task force meeting by putting on the table that all ideas were welcome, except doing away with portfolios altogether. In no time at all, we had our solution. One of the task force members suggested that we create a slide-show presentation where there would be one slide per subject area. A small screenshot of the artifact would be embedded and linked to the page, with comments adjacent to the artifacts. The single screen created the space limit I had been hoping for, which automatically limited the amount a teacher could write. The link format meant that teachers did not have to upload every video, photo and soundbite for each individual child.
Problems a and c were solved; we created an avenue for specific content information that illustrated student growth through their work, and we connected the feedback of conferences and reporting by changing the timing of conferences. In every conference, teachers had their laptops open to the child’s portfolio, and parents and teachers could discuss student growth together with the same text in front of them.
However, we still had the problem that parents did not have a clear picture of their child’s standing with regard to academic standards. While the portfolios demonstrated students’ own growth trajectory, parents also needed to know and understand where their child’s growth measured against grade-level standards. Imposing an A-F grading system seemed counter to what we were trying to create, so again, we looked at the models in other schools.
We created a template for a “grade card.” The name was intentionally not a “report” card as we did not want parents to confuse this grade card with the overall mechanism we were using to report progress. We landed on a 1-3 reporting system. 1 means below grade level standards. 2 meets grade level standards. 3 exceeds grade level standards. And included on the grade card was the following line: “*Expectations are measured in accordance with Ohio State Standards,” with a link to the Department of Education website outlining the standards. In addition, there was a link to the portfolio in the upper third of the grade card with the line, “This student’s work and comments are available in their e-Portfolio at the following link.” This way, if a forwarding school or a parent skipped to the grade card, they would understand that this is only part of the picture.
In the third marking period, we were able to roll out the new portfolio format in Google slides, and we had our grade card to clearly communicate both growth and academic level. The teachers were much happier because they could communicate clearly about student progress without an intense amount of work. The parents were thrilled because they still loved the portfolios, and the new format made it really easy to scroll through their child’s entire body of work. And in the office, we were excited because this new format was already in our Google suite and didn’t require any extra filing to keep both the grade cards and portfolios on record.
Reporting student progress is one of the hardest parts of our work as educators. For a school committed to partnership with parents and keeping student growth at the center of its work, effective reporting is critical. The most transformative aspect of the portfolio process is that it allows parents and teachers to look together at a piece of student work. Often teachers tell a parent about something their child has done; the portfolios allowed the teacher to show the parent. The conversations that emerge from analyzing student work in real time, illustrating the teacher’s feedback and allowing parents to clarify and understand, are incredibly powerful. Through this process, we have been able to strengthen the connection between teachers and parents and provide better resources, better results and therefore a better education for our students.
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