Required High School Portfolios

©2006, Helen C. Barrett, Ph.D.

How to we create mandatory high school portfolios and still keep the qualities that make a portfolio a portfolio (and not something else, like an assessment management system)? How to we create student-centered portfolios within an institutional context? I received the following inquiry recently which made me think about these issues.

I am currently in the process of completing my Bachelor of Education in British Columbia. As of September I will be a practicing member of the BCFT and will be teaching high school students. I am trying to learn as much as possible about the new graduation program that has been implement in British Columbia for all 2007 graduates. You list this program on your website as a reference to look into. However, from reading your blogs, from my opinion, you are very much pro choice when it comes to a student developing their portfolio. My question to you is, the program that the British Columbia Ministry of Education has put forth it has 6 different core aspects that are mandatory for students to complete. With having mandatory aspect to be completed, is this somewhat negating what truly a portfolio is supposed represent? Also, could you please provide me with your opinion on the program as it stands, is it something worth while to buy into, or will a progressive measure such as this graduation portfolio going to be short lived?

My reply: I do not want to second-guess the Provincial Government about their requirement to require a high school graduation portfolio. When you look at the goals of the project, they are very laudable. What I am finding troublesome is how the portfolio is being implemented. Before discussing the specifics, here are a few stories:

While I was visiting with a school district in the state of Washington a couple of years ago, the woman driving me from the airport said that she did not want to have happen in their district what she heard happen in another district in the state. The students there were required to set up a 3-ring notebook, put in specific sections and assignments. When a group of the students graduated from high school, they built a bonfire and burned their portfolios. At a later meeting with the first district, I heard from another man from a different school district, that the story was basically true, although I got the feeling that it was a small group of students, not the whole school. I was told which school district, but choose not to reveal the name for obvious reasons.

I should say that when I tell that story, I always tell a second story, told by Jim Mahoney in his book Power and Portfolios: Best Practices in High School Classrooms. He writes about a freshman English student who created a wonderful writing portfolio, the kind of student-centered portfolio that Mahoney called "construction of self." It was so impressive that it was borrowed for teacher professional development, and in the process it got lost. The student was heartbroken, offered a $50 reward for its return. It never showed up, but the student was able to reconstruct the portfolio from files saved on her home computer, and she used that experience of loss for reflection in her 10th and 11th grade year.

I use these two stories together to illustrate the issue of OWNERSHIP. That in the first case, a highly prescribed, institution-centered portfolio, the students hated the portfolios and the process so much that they burned their portfolios (perhaps in protest). In the other case, the student felt so much ownership in her portfolio, that she would offer a reward for its return. These two stories illustrate for me the problem right now with the way portfolios are implemented. I was up in British Columbia over a year ago (at the 2005 LIFIA conference) when I also led a workshop for the BC EdOnline conference. I told these two stories there as well, and after the workshop, a teacher came up to me and said his son, who was in 10th grade in B.C. felt the same way about his required portfolio (the new requirement from the B.C. government): he wanted to burn his, too. Not only was he told what he had to put into the portfolio, he was also told what he couldn't put in it. This student had some hobbies that he was very engaged in, but he was not allowed to include these items in his portfolio (not academic, or not part of the curriculum).

When I shared these stories last month with another educator from BC, someone (as you will see) who is much closer to the process, I received the following response:

As for the BC provincial portfolio exercise I feel as an educator (who knows a little bit about what works for portfolios), a spouse (of someone who has been charged with developing the portfolios for her school), and as a parent (of a secondary student about to enter the fray) that the whole thing is bullocks and reflects the heavy handed politics characteristic of a provincial government that acts first (because it is important to be seen to act) and reflects later (so it can put the blame elsewhere). The implementations we see reflects the need of administrators to somehow find something to fill the gap and appease the gov't and the attitude carries on down the line to teachers and students. Now there are meetings to decide what happens next as these students are to graduate with no place to hold their precious portfolios...

the unfortunate thing is no one wants ownership of portfolios that do not reflect their values, and what is it we are teaching our children? - how to jump through the hoops without getting involved, how to go through the motions of reflecting without thought, how to conform and not question.

what a waste of human effort - not that I have any strong feelings of course...

I couldn't agree more with his concerns. The problem is with the perspective and philosophy underlying the implementation of these portfolios. When portfolios are institution-centered, the students have as much ownership as the students in my first story (the bonfire). When portfolios are student-centered, they have the potential for the kind of ownership and engagement of the second story I told (the reward). The challenge we have is to find strategies that support student-centered portfolio development. Right now, in looking at the materials that have been published by the BC government, I see a lot of choice in the type of materials that are put into the sections of the portfolio, but little choice about the basic structure (the sections) of the portfolio. For novice users, that works well to get started, but I think students will soon tire of the process. If we want students to only "jump through hoops" that is what we will get. We probably won't know what the students really think about what is important in their own learning.

The questions that I raise here are ripe for some research, especially from the students' perspectives. I am doing that type of research in my REFLECT Initiative project, but it is a small project, and there are no participants in the Pacific Northwest.

I don't think you will have a choice about whether to "buy into it" or not. Philosophically, I think learner-centered portfolios are wonderful tools for documenting change and growth over time, as a place to reflect on learning. I am concerned that institution-centered portfolios are just another example of what Lee Shulman calls "perversion" of the original concept of the portfolio. You called it a "progressive measure" but the way it is being implemented may be much closer to traditional assessment. Perhaps that is a logical first step in the implementation of portfolios, but if that is all the farther they go, then the students will lose a powerful learning opportunity.




Barrett, H. (2004a) “Differentiating Electronic Portfolios and Online Assessment Management Systems.” Proceedings of the 2004 Annual Conference of the Society for Information Technology in Teacher Education [Retrieved January 21, 2005 from:]

Barrett, H. (2004b) “Electronic Portfolios as Digital Stories of Deep Learning: Emerging Digital Tools to Support Reflection in Learner-Centered Portfolios.” [Retrieved January 21, 2005 from:]

Barrett, H. and Wilkerson, J. (2004) “Conflicting Paradigms in Electronic Portfolio Approaches” [Retrieved January 21, 2005 from:]

British Columbia Ministry of Education (2004) British Columbia Graduation Portfolio Assessment and Focus Areas: a Program Guide
[Retrieved from]

Mahoney, J. (2002) Power and Portfolios: Best Practices for High School Classrooms. Portsmouth: Heinemann

Shulman, Lee (1998) "Teacher Portfolios: A Theoretical Activity" in N. Lyons (ed.) With Portfolio in Hand. (pp. 23-37) New York: Teachers College Press.