Teacher to Teacher: Student Growth Portfolios

by Michelle Biggs, kindergarten teacher at Keystone Elementary School in Shelby County Schools

I am a kindergarten teacher for the Shelby County School system and have taught kindergarten for over 27 years. Over the past school year, I have also served in the inaugural Tennessee Teacher Ambassador Network (TTAN) with the teachers and leaders and early childhood divisions at the Tennessee Department of Education (TDOE).

As a kindergarten teacher, I understand the importance of assessing my students in ways that are meaningful and developmentally appropriate, and our TEAM portfolio model helps me do that. However, as a part of my work with TTAN, I wanted to learn more about how other pre-K and kindergarten teachers across the state are implementing portfolios in their classrooms and then share those findings with teachers and the TDOE early learning team. After consulting with many early childhood teachers across Tennessee, I learned that that in order for this program to be successful, it is essential that teachers understand the portfolio scoring rubric and early learning teachers feel supported by their districts in the portfolio process.

Understanding the Portfolio Scoring Rubric

First, it’s important to understand that the portfolio scoring rubrics provide performance level descriptors to measure a standard, so teachers can know how different types of student work align with different performance levels. The rubrics are also helpful in developing tasks that are aligned with our standards and allow all students to show all that they know about a standard.

Second, it’s important to understand how the rubrics work when we score portfolios. The rubrics are used to score student work artifacts at two points in the school year: point A and point B. Within the rubrics, there are five performance levels. Performance Level 3 describes end-of-grade expectations, and performance Levels 6 and 7 allow for students who enter the grade at a high performance level to demonstrate growth over time. In ELA, the scoring rubrics help to tie the standards together in an integrated way, so that we can assess the performance level of students’ work as it relates to the set of standards for each option. In math, the scoring rubrics measure only one standard each and are not integrated.

For teachers who have seen success with our portfolio model, many shared having in-depth knowledge about a standard is essential. Knowledge of the standards, along with regular instructional planning, helps to establish the best point in time to collect point A and point B student work artifacts. In addition, understanding how to use rubrics to score student work is essential when developing learning tasks. Rachel Terry in Blount County says, “The rubric does a great job of breaking down the standard and explaining what it looks like at each level of progression. When I collect student work samples, I am able to see and analyze their level of understanding. From there I can look to the expectations for the end of grade set forth on the rubric to see which areas I need to focus on.”

Keely Potter serves as Director of Portfolio for the teachers and leaders division of the TDOE. When asked what supports from TDOE are available to teachers, she shared that early grades training was offered in October while ongoing support is offered through the Early Grades Portfolio Resource Guide and other portfolio resources found at  https://team-tn.org/non-tested-grades-subjects/prekkindergarten/.   In addition to the portfolio resources, teachers are encouraged to continue utilizing the Tennessee Early Childhood Education Early Learning Developmental Standards, the English Language Arts Standards K-12, the Tennessee Academic Standards for Mathematics, and the Math Instructional Focus Documents, all found at https://www.tn.gov/education/instruction/academic-standards.html

District Support

I also heard that early learning teachers benefit from district support. Early learning teachers work hard in their classrooms to prepare students for success, and many teachers are concerned about districts not allotting time to implement tasks for portfolio collection. Teachers are asked to analyze student data from multiple district-level assessments rather than analyze data from their students’ individual portfolio. Many shared they do not have enough time to conference with students in order to provide feedback and portfolio tasks are done during small group instruction or during nonacademic parts of the school day. Amy Stackhouse of Knox Co. Schools says, “My kindergarten students enter school unable to write letters or words and leave writing in complete sentences. Through modeling and conferencing, I support my youngest learners. I sit individually with each one of my students when collecting portfolio submissions, conferencing 5-10 minutes. With 21 students, there is not enough time in my day to spend on this one, single task.”

One suggestion for improving district support was to provide more time for teachers to collaborate during PLC and grade level meetings. Susan Sullivan and Whitney Sanders of Dyersburg City Schools shared, “We meet in PLC collaborative meetings where we can discuss the portfolio as a team. During that time we really dive into the standards, pick complex text for tasks, and look at student work.” Susan, as Portfolio Lead, provides teachers time to meet after school to discuss questions and next steps. Time spent deconstructing the standards together and understanding the rubric can provide a map for instruction and student growth. Keely shared, “The portfolio process can create a culture of continuous learning for teachers and leaders through the use of analyzing student work in PLCs, pre- and post-observation conferences, and in the development of tasks that are not only rigorous, but also accessible to all students. Not only do early grade portfolios provide data that can assist districts and schools in identifying instructional strengths and areas of need, but they also encourage reflective thinking within teachers.”

With the vision of all Tennessee students being college and career ready, teaching and learning will continue to evolve to meet that vision. As early learning teachers, we will continue to do what we do best:  Set high expectations for all students and help them meet them. Along with that, we can dig into the resources that are available to build on our knowledge of the standards and share the specific supports we need to do this work well with our school and district leaders.