Portfolios: Assessment Across the Arts

An introduction for arts educators to portfolio assessment


Portfolios have long been a staple of visual arts assessment, but they also can be a valuable assessment tool in all the arts. Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, authors of the popular Understanding by Design, define a portfolio as a “representative collection of one’s work.” They note that a portfolio documents a student’s work and this documentation has three purposes.

A portfolio: 
        • communicates what a student has learned; 
        • provides a platform for students to present their best work and their reflections on that work; 
        • and presents evidence of how a student’s work was developed over the learning process.

As Wiggins and McTighe describe it, the portfolio can be both summative and formative.

Summative Portfolios
When a portfolio is summative, it is an overview of what a student accomplished. A summative portfolio will typically feature the student artist’s finest work. However, not everything a student does in class ends up in the portfolio. Along with creating the work, an important part of the student's process is to curate the portfolio or to use judgment to decide exactly what to include. In the performing arts, a summative portfolio could include a video of a student’s best work from concerts presented during the school year.

Formative Portfolios
Formative portfolios are increasingly popular, recognizing that the artistic process is as valuable as the artistic product. When a portfolio is formative, it allows a student to present the development of their work. An example of a formative portfolio is the processfolio, developed by Arts PROPEL at Project Zero. A processfolio captures a “work in progress” by chronicling the development of both an artwork and the student artist. The many steps in the creation, including drafts, edits, and even wrong turns, as well as the final product, are all included in the processfolio. Student reflection is also a key component of this tool. In theater, a student actor’s processfolio might include a student’s annotated rehearsal script, a journal of notes received from the director, and a video of footage documenting work from both rehearsals and performances.

Portfolios Go High Tech
Portfolios are no longer limited to two-dimensional books and papers. Technology is an increasingly frequent tool in portfolio assessment. Portfolios are at work in digital or electronic formats in the performing arts as well. MP3s, videos, and online web tools allow students to create portfolios where they can represent their learning and achievement in music, dance, and theater. A series of podcasts can be created by music students recording their work on a piece.

An Arts Portfolio
There are three components that typically make up an arts portfolio: 
        • Work samples. Depending on the purpose of the portfolio, this can be final products as well as drafts, early versions, or rehearsals. The work samples should demonstrate that the student is able to apply their arts skills and knowledge. 
        • Reflective writing. Students should include reflective writing about their process as well as their product. This helps to illuminate both for the student and the teacher that the student understood how and what s/he learned. 
        • Content knowledge. Portfolios can include a demonstration of formal content knowledge. For example, students may include an academic paper that traces the emergence of jazz in America or measures the impact of Martha Graham on 20th century dance.

Assessing Portfolios
Portfolios are typically assessed with a rubric or checklist. Ideally, the student artist becomes an active part of the assessment process. And arts teachers can collaborate with students as well to identify criteria for the portfolio rubric.

Another thing to keep in mind is that a portfolio may very likely be viewed by more than one person. Portfolios are very often assessed by outside reviewers or other students. And finally, student self-assessment is another key component in the portfolio process.

Not just for visual arts anymore, portfolios can be deep assessment tools for arts teachers in every discipline.



Patti Saraniero
Original Writer

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