Parent reviewing a portfolio

5 Powerful Ways to Connect Learning, Portfolios & Reporting to Parents

When my son, Chris, secured a job with a movie and TV special effects company last year, I said to him, “I guess your good grades in college got you the job, right?”

“Sure, Dad,” Chris replied sarcastically. “This is what got me the job!” And Chris held up his SmartPhone to show me his portfolio which included videos of zombie makeup jobs, as well as pictures of gruesome prosthetic body parts he’d created.

Many schools are already using e-portfolios to capture digital evidence of students’ learning.  Why can we not use a selected sample of this evidence for grading and reporting to parents?  Instead, when I examine reporting formats across Canada — and indeed around the world — I see that little has changed in the past 50 years! Most report cards continue to provide parents and their children with crude summary grades about student learning, followed by vague, largely unhelpful comments. For example, Reading: A – Emma has shown significant improvement in her reading since first term.

I believe strongly that in this digital age, we have, in our pockets, powerful tools to communicate with parents more effective summaries of their children’s learning than this! What might that look like? Well, consider an end-of-year conference involving Viktoria, her mother, and Jackie, her teacher.

During the conference, Jackie and Viktoria explain to Mom how much progress she’s made this year. They review short video clips of her reading in September, November, and February. And then Viktoria reads aloud, “live.” Jackie explains to Viktoria’s mother the specific reading skills she has improved by referring to the “Reading Strategies Wall.”

This kind of “live” reporting is what today’s parent needs and should demand: visual and oral evidence of students’ developing proficiency on essential learning targets. After all, at the end of a term, a grading and reporting system should inform parents about how much progress their child has demonstrated, and whether that progress is sufficient according to grade-level expectations.

There are five significant advantages to using digital evidence of learning when determining grades and reporting to parents:

1. Seeing Actual Evidence of Learning

What do report card grades actually mean in terms of your child’s learning? A typical secondary report card contains what we call “omnibus grades.” For example, “English – 83%.” Many of my colleagues agree with me that the sooner all school systems abandon percentage grades, the better! In no other human endeavour would we be so foolish as to attempt to quantify proficiency using a 100-point scale. For example, what does 83% driving look like? But for now, we seem to be stuck with percentages. And so, with today’s omnipresent handheld devices, the teacher can now say, “Let’s watch a brief video that illustrates Greg’s proficiency in “reading for meaning.” Seeing and hearing Greg read enables his parents to understand what the “83% in Reading and Literature” truly means in terms of the skills he has mastered.

2. Focussing on the “Whole Child”

One of the most important tenets in grading and reporting is the need to separate information about a child’s academic learning from information about behaviours and attitudes. Separating these two domains is essential to reduce the bias that can lead to “he’s a pleasure to teach” students receiving high grades and “she needs to put more effort into all her work” students receiving lower grades.

Of course, in the classroom, students exhibit attitudes and behaviours at the same time as they demonstrate knowledge and skills. By gathering digital evidence of students engaged in authentic performance tasks, parents can see how academic proficiency, attitudes, and behaviours are integrated.

For example, in Helen Hills’ Grade 9 English class, she incorporates “respect for self and others” as a key attitude and behaviour throughout the course. At the end of the course, when students engage in a summative group discussion of a novel they have read, we can see ample evidence of Helen’s semester-long emphasis on respect. In one case, a group of five boys sustains a 20-minute conversation about their novel, listening to each other, building on each other’s responses, providing encouragement, asking questions — all indicators that they have learned deeply what “respect” looks and sounds like.

3. Showing Parents Their Child’s Progress Over Time

Let’s consider Emma’s grades in reading: what does a B in the first term and an A in the second term actually mean? Does it mean that her ability to read has grown according to where she started? Or do those grades refer to the amount of progress she made in improving her reading skills in each term? Or does the B mean that she achieved B quality reading in the first term and A quality reading in the second term?

Grant Wiggins (1998) distinguished these three measures quite succinctly:

  1. Growth is a measure of the increase of student learning over time, but with no specific performance target in mind
  2. Progress is a measure of student learning over time, but there is an expected standard which the learner is expected to reach
  3. Achievement is a measure of student learning at a moment in time.

By making routine use of the recording function of her smartphone or tablet, the teacher can gather evidence of students mastering essential skills over time. A summary of this evidence can then be shared with parents, either during face-to-face conferences, or online.

4. Collaborative Communication About Learning Among Students, Teachers, & Parents

I’ve always believed, as an educator, that assessment is not something that teachers do TO students. At its best, assessment is a collaborative process that engages the student, teacher, and parent in the pursuit of learning.  

Today’s smart phones and tablets facilitate this vision of assessment better than any other tool I’ve ever seen. And more powerfully still, applications such as FreshGrade can deliver digital evidence of learning directly to parents own phones. And when the time comes for post-reporting conferences, what parents don’t want to see video evidence of their child’s progress over a term or year?  

Using video evidence takes parents directly into the learning process and helps them better understand a child’s successes, continuing challenges and, perhaps most significantly, ways to support their child at home.  

5. Helping Parents Understand Why Balanced Summative Assessment is Essential to Deep Learning

Balanced assessment — assessment that includes observation and conversation, as well as written evidence of learning — is essential for two reasons:

  1. Many of the essential learning goals to be mastered by students can only be assessed in a valid way by observing and listening to students
  2. Many students know and understand far more than they can demonstrate in writing.

When parents see video evidence of their child playing a musical instrument, speaking French, conducting a science experiment, or sharing personal reflections with classmates, they come to understand that balanced assessment is essential.  

Sharing with parents and children digital evidence of essential skills and conceptual understanding, gathered through observation of performance and conversation, is one step towards moving away from a systemic over-reliance on standardized, written testing with its over-emphasis of knowledge recall. And in 2017, when knowledge is at every child’s fingertips, a thorough re-examination of the kinds of learning being assessed and reported upon is not only timely, it is essential!  

(Adapted from VOCAL 101, Damian Cooper, Plan~Teach~Assess, copyright, 2017)

FreshGrade Adviser, Damian Cooper is an independent education consultant who specializes in helping schools and school districts improve their instructional and assessment skills. In his varied career, Damian has been a secondary English, Special Education, and Drama teacher, a department head, a librarian, a school consultant and a curriculum developer. He has specialized in student assessment since 1986. Follow Damian on Twitter @cooperd1954



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