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The Role of Digital Portfolios in Standards-Based Grading

Eli Johnson
November 30, 2023

Change can be difficult even when we know it’s good. As standards-based grading transforms the education system, school districts and educators are positioned to make necessary pivots in how to embrace the new model and explore what tools will help the transition for administrators, educators, parents, and students alike. In this blog post, we’ll look at the role of digital portfolios in standards-based grading, and education technology-based strategies to support districts and educators in implementing standards-based grading.

The Shift Towards Standards-Based Grading

Standards-based grading (or competency-based education) measures student proficiency on well-defined course objectives and academic standards. Instead of grading individual assignments, educators score and track student growth on specific learning targets aligned to standards. This approach provides a more precise look at each student’s strengths and areas of development against expected competencies. Academic achievement is reported separately from work habits and behavior, creating a more objective measure of learning.

Students demonstrate mastery through multiple assessments using rubrics and exemplars and are measured on proficiency scales. The focus is on showing competency on the most recent and consistent evidence. There’s room for errors and mistakes because the emphasis is on student growth over time.

With competency-based education, K-12 students encounter a more personalized learning experience. They can progress in their own learning without the weight of grades or points missed fighting for their attention or causing them to become discouraged. Teachers can offer targeted support in the areas in which students need more development while more advanced students can move ahead as they demonstrate mastery.

The focus shifts from giving grades on every single assignment to offering differentiated learning pathways tailored to students’ strengths and needs. Ultimately, standards-based grading enables a student-centered education model that sparks personalized success.

Digital Portfolios: A Bridge to Mastery-Based Learning

Digital portfolios are a powerful complement to a standards-based grading system. They give educators and students a chance to collect work and artifacts in one place, including documents, screenshots, pictures of physical artifacts, videos, and audio clips. Showcasing the student’s learning journey, digital portfolios allow students to continually compile and reflect on pieces that demonstrate their mastery of standards and skills. Because of the multimedia possibilities, educators can see student progress in competencies not easily captured by traditional tests such as communication, project development, and creativity.

Differentiation is supported well through digital portfolios, as they provide both educators and students options on how to capture work and how to give feedback. Educators can give ongoing feedback on portfolio artifacts tied to specific standards which then gives students actionable input on progressing toward their goals. Instead of a hard and fast score or grade given, students can resubmit work after feedback is given, allowing every stakeholder to see the progress made. Teachers are also relieved of transporting heavy stacks of projects or tests home to grade since everything is securely and conveniently stored in one digital location.

Another practical piece of a digital portfolio can be checklists. Whether given to students to assess their progress through a project, track their growth in specific skills within a subject area or unit, or self-assess skills they demonstrated during a timeframe, digital portfolios allow students a more active role in their educational journey and teachers a more facilitative role.

Content knowledge is not sufficient in today’s world. When entering the workforce–whether after secondary or university–students need to demonstrate skills like critical thinking, communication, creativity, and collaboration. Digital portfolios allow them to demonstrate these skills and more through real-world artifacts like projects, presentations, writing samples, voice messages, or video updates. The digital portfolio becomes a powerful tool for self-reflection as students are encouraged to embrace lifelong learning, identify their strengths, and track their growth in areas of development.

By implementing a standards-based approach to grading through robust digital portfolios, schools can ensure students graduate with both the academic and real-world skills needed for college and career success. If a competency-based approach provides transparency to students, parents, and educators while supporting personalized learning pathways, digital portfolios are a pragmatic and modern assistant to school districts and educators taking the approach.

Making the Transition to Competency-Based Education

New approaches to grading require rethinking the curriculum, competencies, assessments, and grading practices. While there is understandably a transitionary period that likely takes place as districts, schools, or individual educators make the switch to competency-based education, digital portfolios are a great tool to help throughout and beyond the transition.

Digital portfolios allow teachers to experiment with new assessments. An educator could test out what it looks like to assess a student's self-reflection video versus a self-reported checklist of skills used during a project. As educators will need training around how to create proficiency scales and rubrics focused on skills and specific standards, the types of formative assessment made possible through digital portfolios provide them with a safe and accessible space to experiment. They’ll have the freedom to tinker with which forms of assessment make the most sense for their grade levels, their classrooms, their subject areas, and the competencies their students are working on.

For their part, students can compile diverse evidence of mastery across mediums. Instead of a paper trail with assorted scores and grades, digital portfolios provide an easy place to store photos of physical work, electronic work, and more. Portfolios also highlight a student's journey and encourage student ownership over their learning goals and progress.

Rather than an overnight transformation, portfolios allow for incremental steps toward competency-based models while providing continuity for teachers, students, and parents. When rolled out thoughtfully, digital portfolios can enable a smooth transition to standards-based grading and a mindset of lifelong learning for students.

Looking for a district or school-wide standards-based grading and digital portfolio solution? Download this free buying guide.

Student-Centered Today, College and Career Ready Tomorrow

Ultimately, educators want students to be successful in the classroom and beyond. Through competency-based education, assessing skills like memorization and work completion is replaced with assessing and tracking the growth of targeted skills tied to curricular expectations. Digital portfolios enable school districts and educators to ease into a standards-based grading system, as they offer opportunities to experiment with different forms of assessment while elevating the role of the student. Self-assessment, reflection, and the multimedia avenues students can take through digital portfolios build up the skills necessary to be college and career-ready. Though changing to standards-based grading can be difficult, strategy, change management, training, and collaboration through digital portfolios can ease the pain and lead to a brighter future for all students.


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