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).