Equity In Portfolios

Averaging scores benefits only two kinds of students: those who show understanding consistently, and those who come into the classroom already understanding the content. If by chance the inequity of that is unclear, let me explain…

Let’s start with every other kind of student, like the one who comes into class with less understanding—for any reason outside of the teacher’s control—broadly described as being less-privileged. A less-privileged student with lower understanding will have lower scores than a more-privileged student who already has more understanding. This is a fact. As the year goes on, the student with lower understanding certainly has the potential to learn content and get higher scores. However, when all the scores are averaged, the less-privileged student will have a lower grade even if making large gains over time.

Pause here.

Now, consider the kind of student that averaging benefits: one who comes into the classroom already understanding content and who starts off with high scores, not low ones. As the year goes on, this already-successful student will have their high scores averaged, and end up with a higher grade than a less-privileged student even if making zero gains over time. This last point is a research interest of mine, and one that isn’t given enough attention when we talk about grading for equity. Whereas the common thinking with a standards-based approach is that it doesn’t matter how a student learns the content and meets the standard, only that a student learns the content and meets the standard, such thinking doesn’t account for any massive gains that still fall short despite conditions outside of school. Nor does such thinking address the already-successful student who can meet the standard with no effort at all. Granted, grading effort/participation is generally a no-no, but what message is being sent if a student can meet standards without learning anything? If they’re privileged enough to have knowledge and understanding, where does individual growth come in when you think of the lifelong learner that so many schools claim to produce?

Cue portfolios!

A portfolio is a physical or digital place to put learning evidence. Portfolios might include assignments that have been scored, or they might not if you’re going for an ungraded approach. Portfolios might even be compiled by students themselves, or organized in the gradebook under its own category. Regardless, a trait that all portfolios share is being used to determine a grade at the end of the term, holistically, thus, avoiding the averaging problem. Portfolios are particularly useful for showing growth, too. Early assignments can be compared to more recent ones, and the early/low scoring ones don’t have to be included in any grade calculation. The portfolio can show where a student is at now (i.e., grade at end of term), as well as how far they’ve come (i.e., growth). That’s equitable. If, however, that same portfolio learning evidence were treated as individual assignments that get averaged together by a computer, such growth is hidden, if not lost entirely. Joe Feldman (2018) writes about “lifting the veil” to make teaching and learning visible. Averaging produces an inaccurate reflection of where a student has ended up.

Growth Criteria
One of my two standards is Growth. If you want to take a portfolio approach that accounts for growth without it being its own standard, just be sure the grading criteria of a standard includes something like “meets, and/or shows growth.” This would ensure that a disadvantaged student’s GPA isn’t tanked just because they’ve made huge gains but end up slightly below the standard. This would also ensure that the already-successful student doesn’t have an unnecessary GPA boost from coasting on privilege, and who’s not living up to their own learning potential. To that point, it’s unlikely that an already-successful student has reached the pinnacle of learning for any particular content and/or standard, right? Chances are good that there’s something an already-successful student could still improve upon, work towards, or learn, especially when evaluated against their own starting point. If not, and there’s no room, that’s not a great standard. This is one case for establishing global standards (i.e., BIG buckets) that are content-independent, or more accurately have content embedded in them. I highly encourage working as a department to hash out what those might be. In short, global standards are much better than your “Topic 4.5.a” kind of state standards that are really just checkpoints along the way towards learning something bigger, for some larger purpose. Select your graded (or ungraded) standards from the latter, not the former.

Other No-Averaging Options?
There’s definitely another way to avoid the averaging problem that has more moving parts: hold mandatory retakes for all students until they “master” whatever you were averaging beforehand. This ensures that the student with less-privilege has a chance to be successful as long as you’re keeping learning experiences in the classroom (vs. assigning extra independent work…just another equity issue brought into the mix). This option, however, still doesn’t address the already-successful student problem, or recognize growth when the less-privileged student comes up shy despite massive gains in their learning.

If presented with the option of dealing with planning in-class time for retakes vs. portfolios, I’d highly recommend the latter. What to use? Google Docs are fine. Just have kids drop learning evidence into one running Doc, or Drive folder shared with you. Use that portfolio evidence to determine a grade yourself however often you’d add scores to the gradebook, or for a more ungraded approach have students self-assess & self-grade at the 1/2 way progress report time, and end of grading term.

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