Hacking Assessment: 10 Ways to Go Gradeless in a Traditional Grades School (2015)


Transition to portfolio assessment

There is incredible potential for digital technology in and beyond the classroom, but it is vital to rethink how learning is organised if we are to reap the rewards.



A REPORT CARD is supposed to be a window into a student’s learning; unfortunately, the light is usually out on the inside. The scores, which are often averaged, give a poor explanation of what students know and can do. In high school, teachers are often limited to one grade and pre-slugged comment codes for an entire term’s learning. Much of the time the choices are inadequate to communicate student learning with any usefulness.

·                   Progress reports and report cards are too infrequent to show growth.

·                   Symbols don’t give an accurate picture of learning.

·                   The comment space is restrictive.

·                   Students have little investment beyond what they “got.”

·                   The report card isn’t a tool for growth.


Digital portfolios provide a place for students to demonstrate growth using real evidence of learning. With each artifact they collect, students have the opportunity to reflect on the work and add nuance to their self-assessments. Because students select their own artifacts, digital portfolios become living files of progress over the course of students’ academic lives, and learning doesn’t have to end with each school year.

Imagine having access to the digital portfolio of incoming students in addition to state test scores. You could see what students know and can do, where they ended the previous year, and where they need improvement. Digital portfolios create a virtual time capsule for high school students, illustrating growth over many school years. When entering college, students can show admissions officers real work—examples of performance and progress that say much more about learning than a GPA ever could.


Since students should be in charge of their portfolios, make it possible for them to maintain paper or digital folders in the classroom so they can start gathering evidence of their learning right away.

·                   Determine the best tool for artifact collection. There are many different ways to do this. Some programs, like Richer Picture or FreshGrade, offer various plans, including site licenses that school districts can purchase. Google and Microsoft provide alternatives from familiar names. Other Learning Management Systems, like Edmodo and Schoology, have their own modules for collecting digital data. Teacher comfort is important; it’s a matter of finding a tool that will easily collect and transfer student artifacts each year. Try one tool tomorrow and another the day after. Soon, you’ll know what works best for you and your students.

·                   Distinguish between portfolios and report cards. Prepare a mini-lesson that helps students understand why portfolios are a better representation of their learning and the true purpose of moving away from the traditional report card. Help students understand the power of sharing their best work in contrast with the grade on a report card given by a teacher. Lead brainstorming sessions about how to create digital portfolios that best represent achievement and are easily accessible to a wide audience.

·                   Review reflection practices. All selected work should include a reflection. Make sure that students understand that every piece of selected work will require a reflection that tells why it was selected and what learning it exhibits. Learners should also be able to express what they learned rather than just pointing out feedback that the teacher or a peer provided. Review Hack 8 for specifics and guiding questions for reflections.


Step 1: Work with students to determine criteria for artifact selection.

Consider what it is that students are trying to show in their portfolios: Is it going to be growth in specific areas? Mastery? Connection? As a class, determine what portfolios should present, and then help students review all of their work to determine which products meet the criteria. Remember that the decision to include something must always be the student’s if the process is to remain authentic.

Over the course of the year, you may require students to collect specific assignments because they fit criteria, but collecting a piece doesn’t mean it must end up in the finished portfolio. One of the greatest skills students learn in this process is how to select the best examples and express why they have been added.

Step 2: Teach students to connect learning across content areas and time.

Although we love to see students connect learning within a discipline, it is much better when they can connect skills and content across subjects. A testament to mastery is the ability to use skills independently in different areas. While students are selecting pieces for their portfolios, it should be evident in their reflections and choices that they see both obvious and subtle connections to other subject areas.

Step 3: Plan class time for portfolio work.

We must give class time to what we value: If we are going to tell students this is an important activity, we can’t assign it and expect them to do it on their own. Make time for students to work independently, with classmates, and with the teacher to ensure a more successful experience. This will also provide opportunities for students to practice different ways to collect artifacts—pictures, podcasts, videos, blog posts, etc. Plus, class time gives the teacher the chance to observe this important process of creating, collecting, and reflecting on artifacts that demonstrate learning.

Step 4: Present final portfolios to hone reflection and speaking skills.

Often when students complete an assignment, only the teacher, and possibly their parents, view it. By requiring students to present portfolios to the class, to a committee of some kind, or to visiting educators, students will extend the learning experience by considering how to narrow their focus and appeal to an audience in the presentation. Plus, this is yet another opportunity to practice reflection on learning.

It’s helpful to have a question-and-answer period at the end of each presentation so students address any areas of confusion and dig deeper into their own understanding of their learning. Answering a question may elicit connections that aren’t evident in their presentations.

Students often share their struggles, but they also elaborate on specific areas of growth, pinpointing the very moments that prompted change.

To extend the audience for the presentations, use apps like Periscope to live-stream them, or record them for future viewing. Exceptional presentations can be included in an exemplar database, which will help future students learn how to efficiently present their own learning.


Some people might suggest that portfolios do not represent all of a student’s learning and are not an appropriate evaluation instrument. They are conditioned to equate achievement to a grade, so they will push back. Here are a few examples of this pushback and how you can react.

What’s the point of doing portfolio conferences if I talk to my child every day? At portfolio conferences, students discuss their learning by referring to actual artifacts. Talking to your child daily about learning is awesome, but when you take the time to go to school, or to review a digital portfolio, you become part of the learning experience. This goes beyond casual chats about school at home; your child sees your commitment to the learning process and your support of the teacher’s strategy.

Portfolios aren’t a replacement for report cards. Some people will not see the value in collecting and talking about work in this manner. However, students become better, more metacognitive learners when they go through this process, and evidence of their learning will be obvious as they talk about their growth. Ask a child about a test score. Ask what he learned, what he remembers, or even why the score is a 70 or a 90. He may remember the grade but rarely can he explain the reason for it. Conversely, portfolios help students speak for themselves.


At the end of each school year, students at World Journalism Preparatory School (WJPS) are expected to give an exhibition of their learning. They review their portfolios for that year or multiple years and create a presentation that shows growth across content areas and the development of important life skills.

When they enter senior year, students understand that before graduation they need to speak about what they have achieved to a panel of listeners comprised of their peers, teachers, and administrators. These exhibitions give the speakers an opportunity to share evidence of their work, connect their learning across content areas, and discuss how they’ve overcome challenges throughout the year. At best, they present a well-balanced portfolio that displays a keen understanding of standards and growth. At worst, students speak with little evidence but can still articulate the takeaways.

For years now, I’ve been helping students prepare for these presentations. I’ve had the honor of listening to them share their journeys and have witnessed their willingness to answer questions about what they will take with them into the future. The finest of these portfolios are punctuated by a student’s keen ability to articulate specific skills and strategies for personal development. Students often share their struggles, but they also elaborate on specific areas of growth, pinpointing the very moments that prompted change.

It would be the rare student who has taken out a progress report or report card and tried to use it as a tool to show growth. At most, they look at the numbers or letters and view the trend of progress from one class to the next, not really considering what it all means. Most students understand how little these documents actually convey. The more important knowledge is what they were able to retain during classes and apply to future learning, and they share this during these powerful presentations of digital portfolios.

Can you imagine a world without report cards and transcripts? I can, and I’m hoping it happens soon. Portfolios offer an opportunity for students to show their learning and progress over time in a more comprehensive and meaningful way. Consider how portfolios might look in your classes. What would an end-of-year portfolio presentation look like in your class? Who could be on the audience panel? How might this experience round off a year more effectively than reviewing a simple report card? How do digital portfolios impact the future of assessment?