Reliable Data from a Rite of Passage 
How a performance assessment system known as portfolio defense challenges learners and informs teachers in ways traditional testing does not
BY JUSTIN WELLS/School Administrator, May 2021

Justin Wells, executive director of Envision Learning Partners, says the use of student portfolios to measure student progress can help preserve a local community’s values and culture. ALL PHOTOS BY THAI CHU, COURTESY OF ALIVE BY SHOOTING PHOTOGRAPHY
Let’s recall what happened to our education system back in March 2020, even though it already feels like a lifetime ago.

As the first outbreak of COVID-19 swept across the country, two pillars of public schooling in America — seat time and testing — crumbled almost instantly. Classrooms were closed and state testing was canceled. In California, where I live, parent and work as an educator, this all happened in less than 100 hours. In the months that followed, the vast majority of students in America were thrust into some degree of educational chaos.

Not so for Yulianna Estrada, a senior at the STEM Academy of Boyle Heights, part of the Los Angeles Unified School District. Before the pandemic hit, she already had been assembling a portfolio of her work that demonstrated what she had learned in high school and why she was ready to move on. She already had a date on the calendar when she was scheduled to defend her portfolio before a panel, which is a graduation requirement at her school.

Rigorous and Memorable

Nothing about distance learning prevented Yulianna from completing and defending her graduation portfolio, so her school did not cancel this assessment. In spring 2020, Yulianna consulted with her adviser by phone, completed her preparations at home and de-fended her portfolio on Zoom. Her panelists were able to pose questions and evaluate her presentation from their own homes.

At a time when millions of American students had their academic assessments canceled, spring breaks extended, grading suspended and learning essentially put on hold, Yulianna and her classmates engaged in a learning experience that was every bit as rigorous, memorable, and valuable as pre-pandemically conceived. And her school was able to gather and act on the vital data that this assessment provides.

Yulianna is among a growing number of students at schools around the country who are engaging with a form of assessment known as portfolio defense, a phrase that elides two concepts: portfolio assessment and defense of learning. It’s a performance assessment that challenges learners to make and support claims about targeted skills by (1) curating samples of their work into a portfolio and (2) defending their claims in some kind of evaluated presentation.

Empowering Students

As we emerge from this pandemic, it’s a good time for school district leaders to reflect on our systems. What was resilient? What was brittle? It is especially pertinent to be asking these questions about our assessment systems, which are being shaken to their foundations right now.

Regardless of how the dust settles, school districts will remain responsible for gathering data about learning that can inform teaching. Portfolio defense would powerfully complement and strengthen the assessment system. It is a reliable and resilient source of actionable data for teaching and learning, while simultaneously providing a peak learning experience for young people.

The portfolio-defense concept borrows from two real-world fields. Visual artists, such as photographers, select and assemble examples of their work into a portfolio as a way of providing evidence of their skills. In a defense, doctoral degree candidates must face a panel of experts as a way of standing behind a dissertation and joining a community of scholars.

These origins help us understand why portfolio defense has proven so effective in the world of K-12 education. Portfolios are a flexible solution to assessment challenges because they can wrap themselves around any kind of evidence, and they enroll the learner in the curation of that evidence. Defenses of learning naturally function as rites of passage, making them powerfully motivating and intensely meaningful for young people.

A Flexible Option
Students at schools supported by Envision Learning Partners in the San Francisco Bay area develop their presentation skills during their portfolio defense.

We can point to many beautiful variations on the theme of portfolio defense, ranging from a senior’s capstone presentation to a kindergartner’s student-led conference. But there are some common features emerging in this practice.

Portfolios tend to be assembled electronically and come with not only the curated artifacts but also reflections on why those artifacts were chosen. To maximize their rite-of-passage potential, defenses of learning tend to be timed with existing transition points in a student’s academic career. Typically, these are 5th, 8th, 10th and 12th grades.

A defense can run anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour, depending on the assessment aims, school logistics and age of the student. Students generally present to a panel, made up of some combination of teachers, community members and fellow students. Significantly, a portfolio defense tends to be assessed as pass or resubmit. Students who don’t meet the standard on their first attempt are supported to try again for a second or even third attempt. Portfolio defense functions best when it is not yet another mechanism for sorting children.

School districts around the country are building portfolio defense systems for a variety of ­reasons. Let’s tour some examples.

Delivering on a Promise

Jefferson County Public Schools in Louisville, Ky., has adopted a graduate profile (also known as a portrait or vision of a graduate). Both the process and the product of the district’s graduate profile exemplify what’s healthy about the graduate profile trend: com-munity engagement, expanded conceptions of student success and commitments to equity.

Even more impressive, however, has been the way Jefferson County meets the challenge of delivering on the promises of its graduate profile.

The school system decided to build a portfolio-defense system as its primary strategy for moving from “poster to practice.” Now, its 100,000 students are archiving and reflecting on their work in electronic portfolios that are organized around the competencies of the district’s graduate profile. In the 5th, 8th and 12th grades, Jefferson County students reflect on their growth in a public presentation of learning.

During the pandemic, the district did not back down from this assessment but rather doubled down. Recently, I witnessed the presentation of Jacob Cravens, a 5th grader at Luhr Elementary School. On video from his kitchen table, he guided his audience through artifacts that demonstrated his growth in the skills of the graduate profile.

After the presentation, his panel, which included a 5th-grade teacher, a kindergarten teacher and the principal, discussed not only how Jacob did (he passed) but also how they could improve the teaching of presentation skills next year. That’s portfolio defense in action — so empowering for the students and providing such valuable data for the adults who serve them.

Examining Student Work

Pasadena Unified School District in California was the first district in the nation to adopt portfolio defense as a graduation requirement for all students. The assessment is serving as a powerful mechanism for calibrating teachers on the quality of assignments and student work.

The requirement that students have a longform research paper in their portfolio revealed a problematic unevenness of that practice among students and their assigning teachers. Before the district implemented portfolio defense in 2018, many students were graduating from high school having never written a research paper, let alone one that demonstrated readiness for college.

The school system is working toward calibrating how educators assess research paper quality. Pasadena’s educators admit they have a long way to go, but portfolio defense has laid out a path for getting there. This should be the aim of any good assessment system: shedding light on student learning in ways that are actionable.

Honoring Students’ Culture

Portfolio defense has been widely taken up in Hawaii, where multiple schools are dedicated to preparing their students for their futures while preserving the culture and values of native Hawaiians. At Kamaile Academy, a school on the leeward coast of Oahu, students not only must demonstrate their mastery of academic skills but also explain their plans for embodying the value of “Kuleana,” or responsibility to the world, one of the cultural values of the school.

Part of the defense is conducted in the Hawaiian language. Local community elders serve as panelists. In contrast to so many traditional assessment practices, which are now under withering and long overdue scrutiny for alienating young people and exacerbating inequalities, portfolio defense shines for its ability to make our schools more socially just. Portfolio defense systems can be designed to celebrate the cultural backgrounds of our students.

Clear Questions

Assessment, in whatever form it takes, from a pop quiz to a state standardized test, is fundamentally the collection of evidence to answer a question about learning or performance. System leaders must never lose sight of that simple truth. We always should be clear on the questions we are asking and match them to methods for getting them answered.

As a school district leader, think of portfolio defense as a remarkably flexible and effective way to answer vital questions about how your students are learning and how well your system is serving them. And it’s a way to ensure your students’ voices are a vital part of the answer.

JUSTIN WELLS is executive director of Envision Learning Partners in Oakland, Calif., and co-author of Transforming Schools Using Project-Based Learning, Performance Assessment, and Common Core Standards. Twitter: @jusowells