Surfacing the “Opportunity to Demonstrate” Factor

In six urban school districts, Dennie Palmer Wolf’s Performance Assessment Collaboratives in Education (PACE) at Harvard University has focused on portfolios as a means to look at learning over time. When PACE teachers come together to look at their students’ portfolios, however, they often focus not only on whether substantial learning has taken place over a span of, say, one year. They also ask what opportunities teachers and the curriculum offered students to learn and demonstrate worthwhile things. The protocol looks like this:

1. Teachers bring together (from one heterogeneous class or different classes) at least a dozen samples of portfolios that represent strong work, satisfactory work, and work from students who are struggling.

2. Using examples from previous sessions, experienced teacher-leaders frame the inquiry’s dimensions. For example: How rigorous were the assignments? Did the student know the standards for good work? What opportunities did students have to move from first-draft work to better work later on? Is there evidence of supporting conditions: the chance to take work home, conferences, peer critiques?

3. With such questions in mind, teachers read and take notes on two samples from each “performance level” of the portfolios they have brought themselves.

4. In pairs, teachers select and read two samples from each level of their partner’s portfolios, taking notes on where they want more information, what questions the work raises for them, and where opportunities for learning might be enhanced. They take turns interviewing each other about their observations, then together list the possibilities for change.

5. The larger group comes together to discuss their observations. What strong practices seem to support improvement, they ask, and which inhibit it or set a low ceiling? What new classroom strategies might emerge from this? Which practices might look promising but prove troubling in practice (such as rubrics that are imposed without reference to the work, or all-purpose reflection sheets photocopied from a textbook)? If possible, they make plans to try these out and come back to the group with the results.