Portfolio assessment in education emerged in the early 1990s as a response by teachers to accountability concerns. Regarded as a teacher- or classroom-based approach to assessment, it is considered to be a form of “authentic” assessment and an alternative to traditional testing approaches. Portfolio assessment provides teachers and learners with a tool to document, review, analyze, and reflect on learning. Since its introduction, this alternative approach to assessment has been used in a variety of educational and professional contexts. Although there is no single way to use portfolios in assessment, the following elements are considered basic to a sound approach:
A container, such as a folder, box, binder, or digital space
Contents that demonstrate learning over time in relation to a specific curriculum or goals
Clear, shared standards and assessment criteria
Reflection on learning
Portfolio-Based Language Assessment (PBLA) is a particular application of portfolio assessment to language learning.
What Is PBLA?
PBLA is a comprehensive, systematic, authentic, and collaborative approach to language assessment that engages teachers and learners in dialogue to tell the story of the learner’s journey in learning English and meeting personal goals. PBLA is a classroom- and teacher-based assessment approach that is integrated throughout the teaching/learning cycle. Together, teachers and learners collaborate to set language-learning goals, compile numerous examples of language proficiency and learning in a variety of contexts over time, analyze the data, and reflect on progress. In this way, learners are encouraged to become more autonomous, active, and self-aware language learners, engaged in and responsible for their learning. PBLA is a process that facilitates the development of metacognitive knowledge and skills that learners are able to transfer to other aspects of their lives.
Before portfolio assessment, I always felt there was something missing in how we were teaching our learners – but I love what we’re doing now. It’s about getting them meaningful jobs or getting them to start their own businesses. It’s so exciting.
– Mary Jean Davis, Winnipeg School Division
At the outset of the program, learners, guided by teachers, collect artefacts (initial CLB placement-test results, language samples, needs assessments, goal statements, etc.) as baseline data. These baseline data indicate a learner’s starting point, against which progress is shown and discussed.
As part of the instructional cycle throughout the duration of the program, learners compile examples of their language learning in the four skill areas: Listening, Speaking, Reading, and Writing. Learners maintain their portfolios in their Language Companion, a binder that they receive at the outset of their language training to support their language learning and settlement and to facilitate PBLA. Please see section Part B: The Language Companion for more information and suggestions.
These include teacher-administered assessment tasks and peer-assessed skill-using language tasks. Throughout the term, learners are encouraged to self-assess and to think reflectively about their language learning process. At key intervals, each learner, with the teacher’s assistance, uses the accumulated data to discuss the progress being made towards the learner’s goals, to highlight ongoing or emerging challenges, and to discuss strategies to overcome them. Teachers use what they learn from these reflections to modify instruction. At the end of the term or program, the teacher collects all the learners’ portfolios, reviews the collected data and other records, evaluates the language-learning outcomes, and prepares progress or summary reports. The teacher then meets with each learner to go over the report. Explanation of the report is supported by the data in the portfolio.
Benefits of PBLA
Any assessment process results in “washback”: that is, it affects teaching and learning. PBLA contributes to positive washback because it builds on and promotes good teaching practice and enhances the development and implementation of specific classroom curricula based on learners’ needs and goals. PBLA has notable benefits to learners, teachers, and administrators.
Benefits to Learners
Portfolio assessment encourages self-reflection, which is important in self-directed learning.
Learners can focus on the learning process, not just the learning outcomes. Learners who are making slower progress or who are in classes that meet infrequently can see that they are developing language skills even though they may not have completed all the competencies of a certain level.
Learners can set realistic goals, develop learning plans, and monitor their progress.
Assessment is integrated into the teaching/learning cycle and does not interrupt the learning process.
Learners can “see” their progress by comparing their present language competence with competence displayed on entry to the class or program.
Learners are given a concrete connection between their language-learning activities, their progress, and the CLB levels and competencies.
Portfolio assessment supports the development of many important skills and concepts that can transfer to other life, work, and school contexts.
Benefits to Teachers
When teachers are completing progress reports, they have tangible evidence of learner performance.
Teachers have concrete samples of work to refer to when meeting with learners about their progress.
Teachers are better able to explain or justify their assessment to learners or to administrators.
Teachers have access to material for a quick reference if a learner requires a CLB assessment to support an application to a mainstream training program or post-secondary institution.
Portfolio assessment facilitates ongoing reflection on the teaching/learning process so that teachers can adjust their teaching strategies and plans appropriately.
When a learner transfers in from another class, the receiving teacher has valuable information from previous portfolio assessment.
Portfolio assessment enhances the development of professional expertise.
The best suggestion I can give you is to view the portfolio as if it is a picture album. When you go on a trip you take snapshots once in a while – not of everything you see. A portfolio could be viewed the same way – the contents are simply snapshots of the learners’ learning over a period of time.
– Heather Currie, Winnipeg School Division
Adult EAL Program, CLB 2 and ESL Literacy Phase 2
Several Winnipeg School Division Adult EAL teachers responded to the questions, “Has [portfolio assessment] impacted your teaching practice or your planning? How?”
I am more aware of what needs to be covered and how much time I have to cover it in. I have become much more organized out of necessity. It also helps me with scaffolding exercises because I know what I have covered and what skills have been reflected in their portfolios. It certainly helps me when it comes to report card time. I am able to pinpoint the specific tasks that a learner has worked on and the skills that a learner does well or needs to improve on.
– Valerie Fulford, Winnipeg School Division
Adult EAL Program CLB 3-4
I started my teaching career in Middle School and we were required to do portfolios with our learners. When I made the switch from the K to 12 system to the adult EAL system I was able to hit the ground running because I had already received a lot of Professional Development related to portfolios. The impact that portfolios has had on my teaching practice or planning is simple – it keeps me accountable, organized and efficient. I have found that doing portfolios is a great way for me to keep track of which outcomes I have met when doing a thematic unit.
– Heather Currie, Winnipeg School Division
Adult EAL Program, CLB 2 and EAL Literacy CLB2L
I find the portfolios have made me more accountable to learners and myself. It forces me to re-evaluate what or how I am teaching a certain topic and whether or not I am delivering in the 4 skill areas.
– Catherine Campbell, Winnipeg School Division
Adult EAL Program, EAL Literacy Pre-Benchmarks A
Benefits to Program Administrators
PBLA improves understanding and facilitates communication between teachers and administrators for promoting learners and class reorganization.
The consistent approach to assessment and evaluation enhances communication among program administrators and facilitates systemic planning.
The evidence of learner progress confirms the credibility of the CLB scores submitted to funders for accountability purposes.
PBLA facilitates program planning and resource sharing because teachers employ instructional strategies and teaching resources consistent with best practices in second-language instruction and curriculum guidelines.
Features of the Learning Portfolio
The type of portfolio that is used in PBLA, a learning portfolio, draws on the best features of several kinds of portfolios:
A process portfolio: The PBLA portfolio documents the learning journey over time and therefore includes more than the end products. Because it includes drafts and revisions, it can help teachers to see progress and development.
An evaluation portfolio: The PBLA portfolio documents the learning journey based on specific needs and goals (many of which are learner identified), and in relationship to standards (in this case, those of the CLB). Portfolios include evidence of performance related to CLB standards, together with observations, records, and feedback related to specific criteria.
A presentation portfolio: The PBLA portfolio highlights learner strengths and skills and provides opportunities for learners to comment on their work and to reflect on and take pride in their achievements. This is especially evident in the learner conferences based on the portfolios.
The PBLA portfolio also incorporates metacognitive skills such as self-assessment and reflection, strategies that have been shown to have a significant positive impact on learning.
Key Features of the PBLA Portfolio
PBLA is intended to enhance language learning and tell two stories: the story of progress in learning English as measured by the CLB standard, and the story of progress towards a goal of personal significance.
In a learner-centred classroom, the differences in curriculum, language tasks, needs and goals, and even attendance mean that each learner’s portfolio will be unique. However, PBLA includes a number of fundamental features that are key to its implementation and effectiveness. These integral features enhance and promote language learning, ensure consistency in approach, and contribute to the reliability of assessment results. The techniques used by teachers to implement these key features may vary depending on CLB level and instructional context; however, the following features are fundamental to the PBLA approach:
Needs assessments are essential in learner-centred classrooms for curriculum planning, goal setting, teaching, and assessment.
Baseline personal information
Baseline information provides the starting point for learners and teachers in discussions regarding progress.
Language-assessment task samples
Tasks and activities should address the CLB competencies in each of the language skill – Listening, Speaking, Reading, and Writing.
Self-assessment and reflection on learning
Regular self-assessment and learning reflection are key factors in assisting learners to become increasingly independent language learners.
End-of-term portfolio review
Prior to learner progress conferences or progress reports, teachers collect their learners’ portfolios and review the contents for evaluation of CLB outcomes.
Standardized progress report
Teachers complete standardized progress reports based on the portfolio review.
Learner progress conference
The learner progress conference, at times set by the program, is a fundamental event in the ongoing dialogue between teacher and learners.