How can we meaningfully measure student learning without relying on high-stakes tests?
In 2020, distance learning opened the door to philosophical conversations at Bay on a range of topics, including effective pedagogy, equity, assessment, and student social-emotional learning. All of our teachers invested time and energy in summer and fall 2020 in exploring these topics. As a result, teachers built courses with new components to address the online environment, and some developed what is called a portfolio-based assessment system as a way to measure student learning. Although it was “turbocharged” by the pandemic, this work was driven by Bay’s philosophy and thus remains relevant for us moving forward.
Early on in remote learning, as a school we determined that giving traditional tests posed a host of challenges. Equity issues arose because not all students had a quiet, distraction-free space available to them at home; some students also struggled with consistent internet access. Although Bay’s curriculum has not relied heavily on tests for student assessments, for the reasons described above, we asked teachers to explore authentic ways to assess students that excluded closed-book tests.
How portfolios are structured and assessed
In response, some Bay teachers have adopted or expanded their use of portfolio assessment. Portfolios are collections of students’ best work across a semester, a year, or even their four-year high school experience. Portfolios are structured around learning goals, include artifacts of student learning, are assembled with teacher feedback and student revision, and are assessed using standards-based rubrics. In many ways, they are a much better reflection of how adults work in their personal and professional lives than traditional school assessments. Despite this, people of all ages are acculturated to an evaluation system based on letter grades, and the introduction to portfolio-based assessment can bring up many questions.
Portfolios don’t dramatically change the way classes run. Students still have classes that include things like lessons, projects, team assignments, and labs. As always, the work given to students has learning goals identified by the teachers. These include content goals, skills goals, as well as core competencies that recognize the growth of students’ academic skills. For their portfolio, students are asked to find pieces of work from the term that best demonstrate their progress toward these goals. In assessing work in this way, teachers move away from things like high-stakes tests, where a single bad day for a student might have a significant impact on their term grade. Instead, students can submit work that they have had a chance to revise, much like most adults do in their working life. This process also integrates with our belief in a growth mindset.
The importance of student reflection and input for assessment
Part of the process of building a portfolio requires students to reflect on their work and to consider how particular artifacts demonstrate their growth. Educators use the term “metacognition” for these types of reflections. Research has shown that true transferable learning occurs most readily when students engage in metacognition.
This practice is not new to Bay. The stage is set with our student-led 9th grade and transfer conferences in October. Teachers and class deans guide students in preparing for these dialogues with their teachers. In addition, our report card system includes a space for a student reflection at the top of the page—giving students the “first comment” on their work in a mid-term and end-of-term course report. Student-teacher conferences throughout the term allow students to be guided and supported in the practice of metacognitive reflection.
These conversations also allow a student to add to the teacher’s understanding of them as a student. During remote learning, there was less “face time” with students—for example, students working in groups in a classroom are all visible to the teacher, and the teacher can get a sense of engagement levels even if they are not directly working with a group. Students in breakout rooms were not visible in the same way. Portfolio conversations gave students a chance to communicate with teachers to fill in some of those gaps.
At Bay, we believe there is no one right way to assess, just as there is no one way students learn. We meet students where they are in their learning journeys and pivot to be responsive to their needs and the demands of the environment. While portfolios have many positives, we know it takes time to understand new systems, and we hope this helps to understand the purpose and reasoning behind portfolio-based assessment.
Nettie Kelly, Dean of Academics and Innovation
Melissa Mirza, Dean of Faculty
The Bay School of San Francisco is an independent high school offering an innovative, challenging curriculum in a community that values equity, mindfulness, and collaboration. To learn more, please visit bayschoolsf.org.