As many of you know the assessment process for the new qualifications on the new Qualification and Credit Framework (QCF) is by assessment of portfolios of evidence. Why portfolios you might ask, well – maybe one of the reasons, is that it spreads assessment over time and doesn’t end in lengthy final examinations, but that would be too simple an explanation wouldn’t it?
Those of you doing them (ploughing through the work) I’m sure have seen the amount of evidence required snowball since that start of the programme of learning. So what is a portfolio? The answer according to one definition by educationalist D Baume is that it is “a structured collection of evidence and critical analysis designed to support and document learning and development towards the intended learning outcomes of the course, to be used as a vehicle for assessing attainment during the course”. Sounds a good definition to me for our level 4 and 6 qualifications, in other words there is nothing soft and fluffy about it.
Portfolios are not new to our industry and have been used with National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs) for many years. Maybe they can resolve some of the current issues in assessment e.g. replacement of high stakes final examinations which tend to send shivers down a student’s spine at their mere mention, examinations that only test a narrow range of knowledge and abilities, a lack of testing the skills and knowledge that are actually required for the real world, the lack of using assessment in the learning processes and not allowing for students and teachers to adopt new teaching approaches that can widen participation of all. Most importantly, any employer worth their salt wants to know what a potential employee knows and can do – portfolios provide that evidence.
Educationally, I and the powers that be (ABC Awards in our case) need to know if portfolios can be assessed reliably and that the assessment methodologies are valid. Is a portfolio just about assessment? If it was I would think that to be to flaky a reason for using them.
Portfolios can be used for learning whilst the evidence is being collected, or after collection, the learner can analyse and review the evidence. Through this analysis, the learner can make further sense of the work they have done, analysing and interrogating it. They can also argue as to what the evidence shows about what they have learned; what capabilities they have developed; perhaps how far they have moved towards attaining the learning outcomes of the course. Before the learner presents a portfolio for assessment, they can offer sections of the portfolio for formative assessment, and for feedback from tutor or peers – that’s a powerful benefit. The learner can use this feedback, and their own reflection and analysis, to identify gaps in their evidence and in their learning. To a degree the learner is in control of what they learn, and not frozen out of gaining more knowledge by the sole need to pass an exam. In the process the teacher takes on a role of facilitator and guide.
Specifically to me the use of portfolios in this framework can demonstrate good validity (does the portfolio test what it sets out to test) because it measures evidence against set learning outcomes and assessment criteria. Assessment by portfolio offers good reliability (can the assessment process be repeated time and time again and produce the same results) within our organisation as we standard set between assessors, internally verify assessment results and benchmark results against an external moderator. Although subjective, fairness in the assessment process can be achieved because it allows a learner to present their own work, their own analysis, their own experience, their own work authenticated by them and over a period of time (extended time in some cases!). Educationalists’ argue that portfolios are an effective form of professional development when at the ‘core’ of a qualification.
What of the slippery slope of portfolio use? Their use certainly has implications for the learner and the assessor due to the avalanche of information out there. Conceivably there is empathy to be had for each other at this stage, as the production of the portfolio can take many long hours as can the role of marking them. The learner needs to understand why and how they are used if the benefits are to be realised, this is because the use of them signifies a major shift from traditional examinations to an assessment process that focuses on learning. This current approach is foreign to most learners who are not young enough to have experienced portfolios in school or at NVQ level.
To finish, as a training centre we are taking the lead in establishing a learning community with our learners – we hail a classroom where the learners are partners and collaboration is viewed as beneficial. Portfolios are here to stick on the ground for the present in this framework and are gaining increasing use in education because of the benefits to the learning process.
Learners’, when portfolios are the means to a great qualification you have just got to grit your teeth, stay ice cool and get on with the compilation of them and not allow the work rate to slide or you to melt and turn into slush!
By Dave Dowson