by Adela Solís, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • November-December 1993

Dr. Adela SolisFrom our experience in the field, IDRA staff can tell you that secondary teachers are getting excited about portfolios as a promising assessment strategy; they are observing how elementary teachers are using them and wondering how they, too, can get into the action. But many implementation questions remain: What are portfolios? What are we collecting? What are we assessing? English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers in particular want to know how portfolios can help them “bring it all together” for their ESL students to create a more realistic profile of what these pupils know and can do. This article describes some possible “how to’s” for implementing a portfolio system in the secondary ESL classroom and provides an in-depth discussion of how portfolios can be used as a viable and authentic form of ESL student assessment.

The Portfolio Assessment Concept

Portfolio use in secondary classrooms essentially involves collecting samples of students’ work and experiences which reflect through the things they do and say the ways in which they think. Teachers that have paid attention to the process of learning as well as to the products of that learning evident in the portfolio collection can collaboratively assess the students’ abilities, skills and knowledge to accurately evaluate, whether or not their teaching is preparing the students for the real world (Batzle, 1992; Tierney, Carter & DeSai, 1991; Valencia, 1990).

Portfolio Collection: The First Considerations

Secondary teachers should realize that portfolio collection and assessment in the secondary classroom, as in other educational levels, is driven by the purpose and organization of ESL instruction (Batzle, 1992; Valdez Pierce & O’Malley, 1992). Before launching a portfolio system, educators must answer the following questions:

  • What specifically are the objectives that teachers have for particular time periods (the six weeks, semester, year)?
  • Is the curriculum for ESL students focused on language development only? Or, does it include content skills and knowledge?
  • Who is responsible for teaching the ESL students, the ESL teacher only or the entire teaching staff?

In a typical ESL program where the school teaches ESL students both language and content and where all teachers are responsible for these students, the assessment should reflect what students can do in all of their classes and for the progress all teachers are responsible for assessing. If we consider that assessment is required for reporting on a six-week and semester, as well as an end-of-year basis, then collection and review of assessment data should occur at these intervals, too, and should be accumulated for end of year reporting.

Secondary ESL teachers should also understand that portfolio assessment is authentic in nature and is focused on student performance. Portfolio assessment is founded on the principle that learning occurs – and can thus be best observed – in the unending variety of settings in which students are actually performing. That is, what is collected should reflect what the students do, say, and think everywhere (Garcia & Montes, 1992; Goodman, Goodman & Hood, 1989). This requires that teachers stretch their imaginations to include activities other than reading and writing in all subject area classes where ESL students are found – language arts, math, science, social studies, home economics, etc. Even activities outside the classroom which teachers can’t observe but to which students can relate should be part of this repertoire. If teachers can accept the need for flexibility and are well-grounded in the purpose and organization of ESL instruction in their schools, they can be successful in using portfolios to assess ESL students.

Models for Managing Portfolios in the Secondary School

In one model commonly observed in schools, each teacher maintains student portfolios to track the ESL student’s achievement in his or her class. Assessment information is not shared or linked between teachers or classes. This model, however popular, is not the optimal application of portfolios as authentic assessment.

To be authentic, it is important that an assessment technique demonstrate student growth and achievement in a multi-dimensional manner. Therefore, a more viable model is one in which all teachers who teach ESL students contribute to the students’ portfolios. This is managed in one of two ways: (a) the portfolio is centralized with one teacher and other teachers contribute by sending samples of student work to that teacher; or (b) each teacher simply keeps individual portfolios of students in their classrooms. In both situations, teachers meet periodically to report growth along common areas (e.g., growth in reading comprehension of math texts, science texts, literary texts, etc., or growth in problem-solving skills evident within math tasks, science experiments, literary analysis activities, etc.) This model of portfolio management is responsive to the concept of authentic assessment because it facilitates collection and review of student data from all sources, targeting all the teachers who work with each student.

Another model is similar to that employed within special education programs. In this model, either a teacher or special program director maintains the collection of data so that all information is centralized with this person. In this model, input relevant to student growth, placement, etc., is provided by all the school personnel who see the students. In addition, parents and outside specialists (such as medical practitioners and counselors) provide input. This “team” meets periodically to conference and make instructional decisions based on a variety of data – observation notes, test results, records of growth and accomplishments, recommendations and past instructional prescriptions. This portfolio model represents optimal assessment and is ideal for ESL students since it allows for maximum input from a broader number of individuals who know the student, both inside and outside the classroom.

Determining Portfolio Contents

Following the typical ESL program model described above, information collected should provide evidence of linguistic as well as cognitive skills, (e.g., information that shows levels of oral proficiency within both communicative and academic dimensions). Also included should be information that demonstrates acquisition of content area concepts and content area skills such as reading and writing skills specific to each subject. Equally important is information representative of the effort put into particular tasks and examples of how the student goes about performing those tasks (Tierney, et al., 1991). The sample items collected should reflect a variety of student work showing what pupils say, do and think. Samples may include written pieces, recorded (video or audio) pieces representing speaking and reading, sketches or drawings, and almost any other evidence of student achievement.

A very important part of the portfolio is what is called secondary evidence (Gottlieb, 1992). These are teachers anecdotal notes, checklists, interviews, etc., which document and summarize what the teachers understand about the students’ ongoing growth, mastery and achievement. The publications referenced at the end of this article contain many more examples and guidance on the collection and management aspects of portfolios.

Using the Portfolio for Assessment and Evaluation

Any method of assessment must be guided by specific pre-determined performance standards, behaviors and instructional objectives (Goodman, Goodman & Hood, 1989; FairTest Examiner, 1990; Valdez Pierce & O’Malley, 1992). A common set of objectives around which teachers of ESL students can collectively assess relate to these areas: self-concept, motivation level, task performance level, oral competence, reading skills in the content areas, and writing skills in the content areas.

At one level, assessment involves ongoing, periodic reflection of growth by both teacher and student within each class and by all the teachers who interact with the students whose portfolios are being evaluated. In a portfolio assessment system, this assessment may involve a teacher’s cursory review of the portfolio noting changes in specific areas across a specific time period that culminates in a short evaluation.

At another level, assessment involves a more formal examination of what students say, do, and think using locally developed rubrics, such as a checklist, which enumerate the dispositions (e.g., interest in reading), skills (e.g., cause and effect), and/or standards (e.g., substantially completes task assigned) in focus. Assessments are conducted to provide a basis for some final evaluation of the students. This evaluation may eventually be recorded as a grade, rating or mark of some kind for each dimension or subject assessed. Ideally, a mark is also assigned to other factors contributing to achievement, specifically, the effort, diligence and performance levels at which the student worked.

How Portfolios Aid in ESL Student Assessment

While it is important for teachers of secondary ESL students to understand the theoretical and technical aspects of portfolio usage, it is equally important that they understand how portfolios enhance these students’ assessments. The value of a portfolio is inherent in its link to authenticity (Goodman, Goodman & Hood, 1989). The use of portfolios in the assessment of ESL students is effective when the principle of authenticity fully embraces the linguistic and social realities of this student. A portfolio is authentic in that its contents go beyond the collection of traditional worksheets, graded assignments and end-of-unit tests to include a variety of items. These items are samples of a student’s broad performance – what and how he or she reads, writes, communicates and accomplishes tasks. Loyalty to the linguistic and social realities of ESL students means that the teacher collects portfolio samples that reflect work and experiences from the following contexts: (a) within the classroom and “real world” situations; (b) in the form of academic assignments and non-academic tasks; and (c) in English and/or the native language of the student. Further, to benefit ESL student assessment, sensitivity displayed in the collection of portfolio samples is accompanied by an honest judgement of the portfolio based on the broad performances that are displayed, regardless of context or language. Specifically, judgement is focused not just on the acquisition of skills and facts but on (1) modes of thinking expressed in any language or work strategy that aids in the completion of a task, however unconventional these may be, (2) on the diligence exhibited in all tasks, and (3) the degree of growth and improvement relevant to set objectives. The teacher who is sensitive to the ESL student knows that what’s important in the end is that the student can figure out assignments, compare and contrast virtually anything, grasp underlying meanings and relationships, and make thoughtful, sound decisions.

The Importance of Portfolio Assessment for ESL Adolescents

Literature on the assessment of linguistically different students acknowledges that these students, in fact, know much and can perform many meaningful tasks (California State Department of Education, 1986; Sosa, 1993). It also concedes that traditional assessment practices typically do not permit teachers to look inside these pupils’ worlds to observe the multitude of experiences and strategies possessed and actually used in students’ everyday lives. Experts in authentic assessment assert that knowing what students do, both inside and outside the classroom can provide a clearer indicator of achievement (Goodman, Goodman & Hood, 1989).

But how exactly is it that ESL students can come to be so smart? If one were to track one such youth for a day, one could see that, in addition to the difficulties associated with the lack of English mastery and acceptance by mainstream society, the trials and tribulations of the adult world are also his or hers to handle. A good portion of a typical day may involve helping with younger children at home, working in a real job or jobs, interacting with innumerable adults, and coming face to face with the complexities and dangers of our urban society. Many of these adolescents, by choice or by chance, find themselves in situations which challenge and threaten their status, security, and even their lives.

These experiences bring strong desires not only for such things as money, jobs, and transportation, but also for a good education; they create a need for quick thinking and creativity to manage and solve daily crises. In these situations, students rapidly mature; they come to understand life. They can see connections and relationships between money, skills, success, and survival, and can act upon them. This kind of experience, undoubtedly, makes for a flexible mind and an independent spirit able to communicate, conceptualize, solve problems and make decisions in the real world. Only through authentic assessment is it possible to provide a clear picture of these student’s abilities and skills.

Now, not all of the abilities and skills ESL students possess may be ready ammunition for the school’s academic demands. There real-life skills may need refinement to be applied to new situations. Students’ experiences may need to be extended so that they can become familiar with new environments and obtain practice in solving distinct problems and making decisions on new issues. This scenario, however, is one that calls, not for new learning (the idea of filling up an empty head), but for transferring ideas and concepts from one context or setting to another.

If, as educators, we acknowledge the reality that ESL students have a wealth of knowledge, we cannot callously accept these young men and women as mere statistics in studies that show them to be dismal failures in school. Currently, testing and test results are the sole sources for the indictment of ESL student as failures. In many schools, however, the validity of this practice is seriously being challenged (Batzle, 1992; Haney & Madaus, 1989). The conviction of testing and test invalidity seems almost general across educators in virtually every state. This is evident in the volumes of literature which document the breakdown and downfall of student achievement within the standardized system of measurement. Equally evident in this literature is the focus on portfolios as an alternative to standardized tests. ESL educators are particularly enthusiastic about this trend. They recognize authentic assessment as an opportunity to bridge serious information gaps and are hopeful that the specific practice of assessment through portfolios can indeed bring it all together for our ESL youth.


Batzle, J. (1992). Portfolio Assessment and Evaluation: Developing and Using Portfolios in the Classroom. Cypress, CA: Creative Teaching Press.

California State Department of Education. (1986). Beyond Language: Social and Cultural Factors in Schooling Language Minority Students. Los Angeles: Evaluation, Dissemination and Assessment Center (EDAC).

Garcia, Y. & Montes, F. (1992). “Authentic Assessment for Limited-English-Proficient Students.” IDRA Newsletter, April, 9-11.

Goodman, K. S., Goodman, Y. M., & Hood, W. J. (Eds.). (1989). The Whole Language Evaluation Book. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Gottlieb, M. (1992). Contents of a Portfolio (training packet). Des Plaines, IL: Illinois Resource Center.

FairTest Examiner. (Winter 1990). “What is Authentic Evaluation?” FairTest Examiner, 8-9.

Haney, W., & Madaus, G. (1989). “Searching for Alternatives to Standardized tests: Whys, Whats and Whiters.” Phi Delta Kappan, 70, 683-687.

Tierney, R.J., Carter, M. A., & Desai, L. E. (1991). Portfolio Assessment in the Reading and Writing Classroom. Norwood, MA: Christopher Gordon Publishers.

Sosa, Alicia Salinas. (1993). Thorough and Fair: Creating Routes to Success for Mexican-American Students. Charleston, WV: ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural Education & Small Schools.

Valdez Pierce, L. & O’Malley, J. (Spring 1992). Performance and Portfolio Assessment for Language Minority Students (Program Information Guide, Series 9). Washington, DC: National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education.

Valencia, S. (January 1990). “A Portfolio Approach to Classroom Reading Assessment: The Whys, Whats and Hows.” The Reading Teacher, 338-340.

Dr. Adela Solís is a Senior Education Associate in the IDRA Division of Professional Development. Comments and questions may be directed to her via e-mail at

[©1993, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the November-December 1993 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]