Initial Findings After Implementing Digital Student Portfolios in Elementary Classrooms

On Saturday, I shared why I was not at ISTE 2016. That post included our school’s limited progress in embedding technology into instruction that made an impact on student learning. In this post, I share how digital student portfolios did make a possible difference.

I attempted a schoolwide action research project this past year around literacy and engagement. We used three strategies to assess growth from fall to spring: Instructional walk trends, student engagement surveys, and digital student portfolios. Each data point related to one major componenent of literacy:

  • Instructional walks: Speaking and listening within daily instruction, including questioning and student discussion
  • Engagement surveys: Reading, specifically self-concept as a reader, the importance of reading, and sharing our reading lives
  • Digital portfolios: Writing, with a focus on guiding students to reflect on their work, offer feedback, and set goals for the future

The instructional walks, brief classroom visits in which I would write my observations down and share them as feedback with the teacher, did show an increase in the frequency of student discussion during instruction but not in higher level questioning. My conclusion was there needs to be specific and sustained professional development around questioning in the classroom in order to see positive growth.

The reading engagement survey results were messy. While primary students showed significant growth from fall to spring about how they feel about reading. intermediate student results were stagnant. Some older students regressed. It is worth noting that at the younger ages, there was also significant growth in their reading achievement as measured by interim assessments (running records). I didn’t have really any conclusions. The survey itself might not have been intermediate student-friendly. At the younger ages, our assessment system is built so that students are seeing steady progress with benchmark books.

Okay, now for the reason for this post. Before I share any data about student writing and digital portfolios, I want to be clear about a few things:

  • A few teachers forgot to record their spring writing data. I did not include their students in the data set.
  • The results from my first year at the school (2011-2012) used a rubric based on the 6 traits of writing. Last year we used a more condensed rubric, although both rubrics for assessing student writing were a) used by all staff to help ensure interrater reliability and b) highly correlated with the 6 traits of writing.
  • The results from my first year at the school, in which no portfolio process was used beyond a spring showcase, came from a district-initiatied assessment team that score every paper in teams of two. This year’s data was scored by the teachers within our own school exclusively.

With all of this in mind, here are the results of student growth in writing over time from my first year as a principal (no portfolio process in place) and last year (a comprehensive portfolio process in place):

2011-2012: 10% growth from fall to spring

2015-2016: 19% growth from fall to spring

I have the documentation to verify these results. The previously shared points are some of the reasons why I hold these results a bit in question. At the same time, here are some interesting details about this year’s process.

  • All teachers were expected to document student writing at least six times a year in a digital portfolio tool. In addition, each student was expected to reflect on their work by highlighting what they did well, identifying areas of growth, and making goals for the next time they were asked to upload a piece of writing into their digital portfolio.
  • The digital portfolio tool we used, FreshGrade, was well received by families. Survey results with these families revealed an overwhelmingly positive response to the use of this tool for sharing student learning regularly over the course of the school year. In fact, we didn’t share enough, as multiple parents asked for more postings.
  • The comments left by family members on the students’ work via digital portfolios seemed to motivate the teachers to share more of the students’ work. Staff requested additional trainings for conducting portfolio assessment. They could select the dates to meet and offer the agenda items that we would focus on.

If you have read any of the research on feedback and formative assessment, you will know that many studies have shown that educators will double their effectiveness as teachers when they focus on formative assessment and providing feedback for students as they learn. It should be noted that our 19% growth is almost double what we achieved in 2011-2012.

One might say, “Your teachers are better writing instructors now than five years ago.” Maybe, in fact probably. But what we measured was growth from fall to spring and compared the results, not longitudinal growth over many years. The teachers can own the impact that their instruction made on our students this school year.

There was not formalized training for improve teachers’ abilities to increase speaking and listening in the classroom. Reading engagement strategies were measured but not addressed during professional development. Only the writing portfolio process along with the incorporation of digital portfolios to document and share this process was a focus in our faculty trainings.

Although these results are promising, I am not going to make any big conclusions at this time. First, only I did the data crunching of these results. Also, we didn’t follow a more formal research process to ensure validity of our findings. However, I am interested in pursuing partnerships with higher education to ensure that any results and conclusions found in the future meet specific thresholds for reliability.

One final thing to note before I close: Technology was important in this process, but my hypothesis is the digital piece was secondary to the portfolio process itself. Asking the students to become more self-aware of their own learning and more involved in goal-setting through teacher questioning and feedback most likely made the difference. The technology brought in an essential audience, yes, but the work had to be worth sharing.

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For more on this topic, explore my digital book Digital Student Portfolios: A Whole School Approach to Connected Learning and Continuous Assessment. It is available for Kindle, Nook, and iBooks. You can join our Google+ Community to discuss the topic of digital portfolios for students with other educators.

If you liked my first book, check out my newest book 5 Myths About Classroom Technology: How do we integrate digital tools to truly enhance learning? (ASCD Arias). 

 

Three Recommended Technologies for Digital Student Portfolios

Right now I am closing in on finishing Chapter 4 of my upcoming ASCD book Digital Student Portfolios: A Guide for Powerful Formative Assessment (working title).

The first three chapters offer a definition of digital portfolios and why they should be utilized in every school. Now I am at the fun part: Describing the technologies that can be used for this type of initiative.

Next is a graphic I have “rendered” that summarizes the pros and cons of each of the three recommended technologies for digital portfolios: blogs, dedicated portfolio applications, and websites. It’s a draft. What are your thoughts on this topic? What am I missing or possibly misinformed in my knowledge about these tools? Please share in the comments.

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Opting In

Testing season is upon us. In our Title I elementary school in Central Wisconsin, we have had students preview the computerized assessment. The Chromebooks have been configured and the wireless tested. For the next six weeks, all 3rd through 5th grade students will be taking the Forward Exam, our third different standardized test in as many years.

All of our students except one: My son. He will be sitting this one out.

Our reasons are many. As a parent, I don’t believe the test will glean any useful information about his abilities as a learner. As our school’s principal, I want to set the example with regard to my position on this issue. As a person, having a student sit for multiple hours taking an examination that will have no bearing on his school career makes little to no sense. Students at this age cannot advocate for themselves.

This is not a simple or straightforward decision. Our school has been the recipient of $100,000 in state-level grants for the past three years in large part due to our student achievement results. We have taken pride in receiving these awards, in spite of the reality of how we received them. If other families in our school elected to opt out their kids, our school could lose federal funding – 95% of a school’s student body has to take the test to avoid sanctions. As I said, not so simple.

For these reasons, we are not only opting our son out of this year’s standardized test; we are also opting him into a performance portfolio assessment.

While the rest of the student body is testing, my son and I will be working together to develop an online repository of different artifacts that demonstrate his progress and performance during the school year. Each artifact will be accompanied with a personal reflection about why he included the piece and what knowledge, skill or disposition it showcases about him as a learner. We are using Google Sites for this process. He can take this digital portfolio with him throughout his school career, adding to it and replacing artifacts when appropriate.

I have no problem with families electing to opting their child(ren) out of the standardized test. It certainly makes a point and, collectively, can lead to some much needed change in education. At the same time, when we express our dissatisfaction with something currently happening, I believe we should also be offering some alternatives and creative solutions. Otherwise, we may create a vacuum that gets filled with something pretty similar to the problem we were trying to get rid of in the first place.

If we are opting out our kids of the standardized test, let’s be honest about why with them. When I spoke to my son about this decision, I explained that I believe developing a performance portfolio of his best work from the school year was a better way to showcase his learning than a standardized test. (He responded with, “I’m not sure what you are talking about, so I’ll just go with it.”) I also shared with him that this decision was both taking a position on an important issue and offering a solution to the problem.

Opting out is easy. Coming up with solutions is harder, yes, but it is also an essential part of advocating for equity in public education. Why not be a part of the solution?

How do we separate achievement and effort?

Our family recently stayed at my parent’s place, on our way to a short family vacation in Madison. My mother was rummaging around in some of my stuff from my school career and pulled out a college paper I had composed. Written on the title page of my work (a report about The Doors for an elective course in American music) were three words:

Two days late.

I remember this work because I actually enjoyed writing it. We were allowed to choose which musician(s) to research. The professor left a number of positive comments on it with regard to the content and organization of the paper. After rereading it, I thought I had provided some sound conclusions about the influence of The Doors on other artists and rock and roll in general. It was saved since the 1990s, when I took the course, if that says anything.

What I don’t remember is that it was two days late. Really – no clue. My best guess is that I probably didn’t organize my time well enough to complete it by the due date. College offers a lot of distractions! 🙂 There were a few grammatical errors that might have been corrected had I been more diligent about a writing schedule, something I try to do now.

At the end of the paper was my grade = C. The biggest factor: The 20% that was docked off my final score, 10% for each day late. I was given a C for an A paper.

That was back in the 90’s. Education has come so far since then.

In a column written for Education Week, Nancy Flanigan addresses the varied comments left on a teacher’s post. The subject of the post was the failure of her students to complete her assigned activity while she was away. “What an incompetent sub! Give ’em all zeros!” and “Candy and a free day for the five compliant ones!” were a few suggestions.

Being able to communicate a student’s attitude and responsibility a part from their understandings and skills is an issue still today. There isn’t a perfect system. Standard-based grading gets us closer. But, with all of the standards teachers need to tackle, the management itself of this type of reporting can become overwhelming and burdensome.

What have you found more effective in separating achievement from effort? Please share in the comments and start a conversation.

 

Podcast: Five Commonly Accepted Myths About Education Technology @BAMRadio @ASCD

I joined Dr. Rachael George for a podcast on BAM Radio to discuss my ASCD Arias book 5 Myths About Classroom: How do we integrate digital tools to truly enhance learning?  Enjoy!

Student Engagement Still Low in U.S. Schools

I don’t often repost other bloggers’ content, so when I do…

Scott McLeod shared on his blog survey results from Gallup about the level of engagement in learning that secondary students are experiencing. When almost 1 million students state that they become less engaged the more years they spend in school, this is a cause for alarm. These results say more about education than any test score might reveal. Below is his post.

The latest results are available from the annual Gallup poll of middle and high school students. Over 920,000 students participated last fall. Here are a couple of key charts that I made from the data:

2015 Gallup Student Poll 1

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2015 Gallup Student Poll 2

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The biggest indictment of our schools is not their failure to raise test scores above some politically-determined line of ‘proficiency.’ It’s that – day in and day out – they routinely ignore the fact that our children are bored, disengaged, and disempowered. We’ve known this forever, but we have yet to really care about it in a way that would drive substantive changes in practice. The disenfranchisement of our youth continues to happen in the very institutions that are allegedly preparing them to be ‘lifelong learners’.

Why do you think students continue to become more disengaged as they progress through our school systems? Please share your ideas in the comments.

From Idea to Iteration: Honoring the Process of Learning #IPDX16

41t7g4xHHzL._SX258_BO1204203200_One of my favorite books to read aloud, to staff and students, is What Do You Do With an Idea? by Kobi Yamada and Kae Besom (Compendium, 2014). According to the summary posted on Barnes and Noble:

This is the story of one brilliant idea and the child who helps to bring it into the world. As the child’s confidence grows, so does the idea itself. And then, one day, something amazing happens.

This is a story for anyone, at any age, who’s ever had an idea that seemed a little too big, too odd, too difficult. It’s a story to inspire you to welcome that idea, to give it some space to grow, and to see what happens next. Because your idea isn’t going anywhere. In fact, it’s just getting started.


 

It’s been a year and a half since I published my first book on digital portfolios for students. In the time between then and now, my beliefs regarding the smart use of technology to provide authentic, connected assessment for students to showcase their understanding and skills have largely stayed the same. I continue to reference this resource in my workshops, such as the one I facilitated today at AcceleratED.

The consistency in the concept that learners require access, purpose, and audience for this type of learning to take place gives credibility to what I’ve shared today and in the past. This is what I knew at the time:

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Source: Digital Student Portfolios: A Whole School Approach to Connected Learning and Continuous Assessment (eBook, 2014)

The visual was designed to locate access as the cornerstone for all of the other work we might engage students in with regard to digital assessment. The purpose of the learning task and the audience for this work would envelope the access students require to share their learning in ways that best meet their needs and preferences.

My thinking has not changed in these three tenets of engagement with digital assessment. However, I am wondering if this visual is the only representation for this framework. As I was flying over the Rockies from Denver on my way to Portland for the excellent AcceleratED experience, a new visual coalesced.

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This graphic was not rendered with the same production quality as the previous graphic, but the difference is hopefully clear. By provide access to students with multiple ways to represent their learning (audio, video, image, text), they can feel more successful as well as better inform the teacher about the next steps (purpose) in their learning journey. Motivation is increased when there is an authentic audience involved in viewing student learning, namely their family through digital tools such as FreshGrade (www.freshgrade.com). One tenet of engagement informs the other, which informs the other, and back again. Kind of like learning! 🙂

In my subsequent experiences as a school principal who visits classrooms regularly since writing this digital resource, I have found that the digital portfolio assessment process is as much of a cycle as well as a framework. Was I wrong in my initial thinking? I don’t think so. It was my paradigm at the time. I think the premise still holds true. What I’ve realized since then is, what I imagine as a mental model doesn’t necessarily translate to reality. As a lifelong learner, I’ve received a lot of feedback from other educators and explored different perspectives on this topic. The more I learn, the more questions I have.


 

The main message from What Do You Do With an Idea? is that when we share something new and possibly innovative to the world, it is hard to predict where the idea might lead. Others start to own it, put their personal stamp on it, and eventually make it their own. This is okay. I have given digital portfolio assessment “some space to grow, and to see what happens next.” It wasn’t my original idea anyway. The initial framework has evolved due to other educators’ perspectives and from my own reflections. Who am I to stop these continuous iterations? I look forward to what the framework might look like in 2017.