Not Just a Number: How Digital Portfolios Help One District Measure What...

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Not Just a Number: How Digital Portfolios Help One District Measure What Matters

By Daniel Whitt     Sep 26, 2017

Not Just a Number: How Digital Portfolios Help One District Measure What Matters

This story is part of an EdSurge Research series about how educators are changing their practices to reach all learners.

Many educators and administrators can get on board with the benefits of digital portfolios—purposeful student reflection, curation of one’s best work and the development of technical skills necessary to create an exemplary digital portfolio. But can layering portfolio-based assessment on top of traditional measures really bring about change?

In Madison City Schools in Madison, Alabama, we have made a commitment to grow an initiative around digital portfolios. We have dedicated the last several years to empowering teachers, building resources and telling our story—we even created a 38-minute YouTube documentary to guide practitioners in making the logistical shift to digital portfolios. But the most meaningful change cannot happen without philosophical and political shifts. Even in my district, which fully supports digital portfolios, they are a thing we stack on top of a traditional system of grading and assessment—they’re an activity we do on Fridays if we have time.

For the real change to take place, we need to transition from an achievement culture to an accomplishment culture—and accomplishments can’t be measured numerically.

As measured by traditional metrics such as ACT scores and AP exams, Madison City Schools is a very successful district. We have brilliant students, innovative teachers and steadfast leadership—but we are still playing an old game with outdated rules, and we are often looking at an irrelevant scoreboard to assess student success. The best parts of our students’ growth cannot be gauged by a test score.

Confrontation of a paradigm shift is never comfortable. Whether we accept it or not, we are at a pivotal time in human development, and we have some very important decisions to make about how we will proceed. Like many other school districts, we are walking backwards into the future. Ironically, we are clinging to our old, standardized metrics as we talk about exponential change and an unpredictable future—holding dear to the things we know because we do not understand the things to come. We are preserving a way of life that fits neatly into a spreadsheet. We do this because spreadsheets have helped us track progress along a standardized continuum.

What we have missed is that the needs of our youth have completely transformed—the baseline for success now includes perpetual reflection, adaptability and original thinking. We will need to look outside the numbers if we hope to make progress in these areas.

The era of standardization was birthed by a society optimistic about producing citizens who could arrive on time, follow instructions and produce predictable results. We built our expectations for schools around the needs of our society. Now, in the time of what Alvin Toffler called ”Future Shock” in 1970, we find ourselves clinging to protocols and behaviors which no longer meet our needs.

The world—now more than ever—has become an accomplishment culture, a culture in which we reward those who can accomplish complex, long-term, creative goals which improve the world in some meaningful way.

In “Education to Better Their World,” Marc Prensky compares two seemingly synonymous words: achievement vs. accomplishment. He suggests there is a common misconception that the two words are interchangeable; but most educators will agree that they have very different connotations. Achievement implies meeting or exceeding a quantifiable goal, whereas accomplishment more accurately describes meeting a long-term personal or societal goal.

In an achievement culture, we can say that 9% of our third grade students do not meet a mathematics benchmark on a formative assessment—or that a student got 92% of the questions correct on a quiz. But we cannot say that our students are ready to become productive citizens in a world that does not yet exist. They have spent years practicing goals that were invented in the past for a different world. In education, achievement has become wilted from years of heavy weight, but accomplishment is ripe for the picking.

Educators and school leaders around the country are awakening to a new understanding of the purpose of education. Many are advocating for widespread adoption of portfolio-based assessment; and an increasing number of schools are making the shift to digital portfolios. This represents a significant philosophical shift in thinking—practitioners not only recognize that not all growth can be measured by a numerical test score—but are taking action to record progress in other ways.

It is crucial that we approach digital portfolios not as “just another thing,” but as both the vehicle and the fuel to approach the future of education, which is an accomplishment culture driven by solving real problems and pursuing unique growth opportunities for each learner.

To simply adopt digital portfolios and stack them on top of our old system is like attempting to run the newest operating system on the oldest computer—from time to time we will reap the rewards, but mostly we will just crash. Our teachers and students are already exhausted from the “latest fad” cycle in education, and they can smell the buzzwords coming a mile away. If we hop on the bandwagon without first mapping a new path, we will end up at the same old destination.

So how do we get to a new destination? Imagine the future of education as a fragile scale with our current achievement culture on one side and the coming accomplishment culture on the other. With too much weight on either side, the scale will break. First, we must purposefully exercise subtraction. I mean this literally.

Teachers are in a constant pursuit of balance. Time and energy are finite resources for them—and we can’t expect them to buy into an unsustainable and impossible workload. Leaders must find ways to clearly articulate which outdated practices can be removed from a teacher’s day, in order to make space for the new ones.

Once we’re on a path toward balance, we must reimagine our grading practices by asking ourselves some difficult questions. What constitutes “passing” a class? What do we send home to parents that can more accurately illustrate the accomplishments of our students when a number simply won’t suffice? If government agencies will always attach funds to things that can be quantified, how can we justify a significant shift away from quantifiable data?

At Madison City Schools, we haven't made all of the philosophical shifts that will allow us to break the political and societal structure that boxes us into standardized testing. But having conversations about grading practices and launching an initiative to bring attention to the issue has put us on the path forward. For our district, a big first step has been experimenting with digital portfolios and hosting forums to discuss their deeper implications.

We recognize that bringing about this kind of massive change will take an army of students, educators and parents who are willing to stand up for a new way of learning. It is up to us—the practitioners—to create and purposefully engage in a new mindset.

Though this societal transition is happening much slower than I would prefer, a quote by P.D. Ouspensky keeps me fighting for the brighter future I see in my mind: “When one realizes one is asleep, at that moment one is already half-awake.”

Daniel Whitt is the the instructional technology coordinator for Madison City Schools in Madison, Alabama.

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