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The Portfolio and Its Use: Developmentally Appropriate Assessment of Young Children

Author: Cathy Grace



Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education


Components of the Young Child's Portfolio

Portfolio Authenticity

Using the Portfolio in Evaluation


For More Information

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The subject of children's achievement and performance in school, and even before school, has received increasing public attention during the latter 1980s and early 1990s. A general consensus for assessment reform is reflected by the volume and variety of professional literature on various methods of assessment and the number of states that are seeking alternative means to evaluate students.

Educators use the term authentic assessment to define the practice of realistic student involvement in evaluation of their own achievements. Authentic assessments are performance-based, realistic, and instructionally appropriate (Pett, 1990). One method of authentic assessment is to assemble and review a portfolio of the child's work.

The portfolio is a record of the child's process of learning: what the child has learned and how she has gone about learning; how she thinks, questions, analyzes, synthesizes, produces, creates; and how she interacts--intellectually, emotionally and socially--with others. Arter and Spandel (1991) define the portfolio as a purposeful collection of student work that exhibits to the student, or others, her efforts or achievement in one or more areas. According to Meisels and Steele (1991), portfolios enable children to participate in assessing their own work; keep track of individual children's progress; and provide a basis for evaluating the quality of individual children's overall performance. Wide use of portfolios can stimulate a shift in classroom practices and education policies toward schooling that more fully meets the range of children's developmental needs.

Components of the Young Child's Portfolio

The portfolio can include work samples, records of various forms of systematic observation, and screening tests. Engel (1990) emphasizes that "work samples meet the need for accountability while recognizing and supporting individual progress." They keep track of a child's progress--in other words, they follow the child's success rather than his failure. Teachers and parents can follow children's progress by reviewing children's writings, drawings, logs of books read by or to them, videos or photographs of large projects, tape recordings of the children reading or dictating stories, and so forth.

During systematic observation, young children should be observed when they are playing alone, in small groups, in large groups, at various times of day and in various circumstances. Systematic observation must be objective, selective, unobtrusive, and carefully recorded (Bertrand and Cebula, 1980). Ideally, a portfolio includes observations in several or all of the following forms:

Anecdotal records. Anecdotal records are factual, nonjudgmental notes of children's activity (Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory, 1991). They are most useful for recording spontaneous events. They should be cumulative, revealing insights about the child's progress when they are reviewed sequentially.

Checklist or inventory. The checklist or inventory is one of the easiest tools for recording children's progress. It should be based on instructional objectives and the development associated with the acquisition of the skills being monitored. In general, observations should be based on regular activities, not on specially designed or contrived activities.

Rating scales. Rating scales are appropriately used when the behavior to be observed has several aspects or components, such as a child's success at following directions in different situations.

Questions and requests. One of the most effective and easiest means of gathering information is to ask direct, open-ended questions of individual children. Open-ended requests such as, "I'd like you to tell me about this," elicit samples of the child's expressive language ability. Asking children about their activities also often yields insights into why they behave as they do.

Screening tests. Screening tests are used to help identify the skills and strengths that children already possess, so that teachers can plan meaningful learning experiences for their students. Findings of screening tests and developmental scales should be considered with work samples and other, more subjective, material that the teacher assembles in portfolios. The assessment information revealed by such instruments is not appropriately used for grading, labeling, grouping, or retaining children.

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Portfolio Authenticity

Decisions about what items to place in a portfolio should be based on the purpose of the portfolio. Without a purpose, a portfolio is just a folder of student work. The portfolio exists to make sense of children's work, to communicate about their work, and to relate the work to a larger context (Arter and Paulson, 1991; Paulson and Paulson, 1991). According to Murphy and Smith (1990), portfolios can be intended to motivate students, to promote learning through reflection and self-assessment, and to be used in evaluations of students' thinking and writing processes.

In early childhood education, portfolios should contain a statement of purpose and a wide variety of work samples, including successive drafts of work on particular projects. Children should be involved in choosing items to preserve so that they can analyze their work themselves.

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Using the Portfolio in Evaluation

The material in a portfolio should be organized by chronological order and category. Since all information in the portfolio is dated, arranging the work samples, interviews, checklist, inventories, screening test results, and other information should be simple. Meisels and Steele (1991) suggest further organizing the material according to curriculum area or category of development (cognitive, gross motor, fine motor, and so forth).

Once the portfolio is organized, the teacher can evaluate the child's achievements. Appropriate evaluation always compares the child's current work to her earlier work. This evaluation should indicate the child's progress toward a standard of performance that is consistent with the teacher's curriculum and appropriate developmental expectations. Portfolios are not meant to be used for comparing children to each other. They are used to document individual children's progress over time. The teacher's conclusions about a child's achievement, abilities, strengths, weaknesses, and needs should be based on the full range of that child's development, as documented by the data in the portfolio, and on the teacher's knowledge of curriculum and stages of development.

The use of portfolios to assess young children provides teachers with a built-in system for planning parent-teacher conferences. With the portfolio as the basis for discussion, the teacher and parent can review concrete examples of the child's work, rather than trying to discuss the child's progress in the abstract.

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Appropriate assessment of young children should involve the children themselves, parents, and teachers. The portfolio method promotes a shared approach to making decisions that will affect children's attitudes toward work and school in general. It frees the teacher from the constraints of standardized tests. Finally, using portfolios in assessment allows teachers to expand the classroom horizon and enlarge each child's canvas. Thus, the teacher can focus on the child and develop an intimate and enduring relationship with him.

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For More Information

Arter, J., and Paulson, P. Composite Portfolio Work Group Summaries. Portland, OR: Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory, 1991.

Arter, J., and Spandel, V. Using Portfolios of Student Work in Instruction and Assessment. Portland, OR: Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory, 1991.

Bertrand, A., and Cebula, J. Tests, Measurements, and Evaluation: A Developmental Approach. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1980.

Engel, B. "An Approach to Assessment in Early Literacy." In C. Kamii (Ed.), Achievement Testing in the Early Grades: The Games Grown-ups Play. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children, 1990. ED 314 207.

Grace, C., and Shores, E.F.The Portfolio and Its Use: Developmentally Appropriate Assessment of Young Children. Little Rock, AR: Southern Early Childhood Association, 1991.

Meisels, S., and Steele, D. The Early Childhood Portfolio Collection Process. Ann Arbor, MI: Center for Human Growth and Development, University of Michigan, 1991.

Murphy, S., and Smith, M.A. "Talking about Portfolios." The Quarterly of the National Writing Project. 12 (Spring, 1990): 1-3, 24-27. EJ 429 792.

Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory. Alternative Program Evaluation Ideas for Early Childhood Programs. Portland, OR: Author, 1991.

Paulson, P., and Paulson, L. "Portfolios: Stories of Knowing." In Claremont Reading Conference 55th Yearbook. Knowing: The Power of Stories. Claremont, CA: Center for Developmental Studies of the Claremont Graduate School, 1991. ED 308 495.

Pett, J. "What is Authentic Evaluation? Common Questions and Answers." Fair Test Examiner 4 (1990): 8-9.

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Other Resources

Calkins, A. (1991). Juneau Integrated Language Arts Portfolio for Grade 1. Juneau, AK: Juneau Borough School District, 10014 Crazy Horse Dr.

Koppert, J. (1991). Primary Performance Assessment Portfolio. Mountain Village, AK: Lower Yukon School District, P.O. Box 32089.

Mathews, J. (February, 1990). From Computer Management to Portfolio Assessment. The Reading Teacher, pp. 420-21.

Paulson, P.R. (1991). Pilot Composite Portfolio: Developmental Kindergarten. Beaverton, OR: Beaverton, OR: Beaverton School District, P.O. Box 200.

Villano, J. & Henderson, M.C. (1990). Integrated Language Arts Portfolio. Fairbanks, AK: Fairbanks North Star Borough School District, P.O. Box 1250, Fairbanks, AK, 99707.

References identified with an ED (ERIC document)number are cited in the ERIC database. Documents are available in ERIC microfiche collections at more than 825 locations worldwide. Documents can also be ordered through EDRS: (800) 433-ERIC. References with an EJ (ERIC journal) number are available through the originating journal, interlibrary loan services, or article reproduction clearinghouses: UnCover (800) 787-7070; UMI (800) 732-0616; or ISI (800) 523-1850.

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ERIC/EECE Digests are short reports on topics of current interest in education. Digests are targeted to teachers, administrators, parents, policy makers, and other practitioners. They are designed to provide an overview of information on a given topic and references to items that provide more detailed information. Reviewed by subject experts who are content specialists in the field, the digests are funded by the Office of Educational Research and Improvement (OERI) of the U.S. Department of Education.

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