Development and Implementation of Student Portfolios in Foreign Language Programs


The wave of educational reforms has brought with it an increasing dissatisfaction with traditional approaches toward student assessment (i.e., standardized testing instruments). Traditional assessment has emphasized the measurement of a given body of defined and discrete knowledge as determined by a student's performance on an objective test (Herman, Aschbacher and Winter, 1992). This approach has often been limited to assessment of student outcomes at a specific point in time and has provided little information about teaching and learning processes (Thompson, 1995).

Recently, educators have put increasing emphasis on a search for alternative forms of measuring the processes inherent in actual classroom learning and teaching (Baker, 1990; Herman, Aschbacher and Winter, 1992; and Lewis, 1992). Alternative methods of assessment are an integral part of classroom instruction and should require students to apply and integrate what they know by emphasizing complex skills (e.g., ability to analyze, generalize, and hypothesize) within a relevant, meaningful context. These approaches call for more student involvement in planning assessment, interpreting the results of assessment, and in self-assessment. One such approach which has gained popularity is the use of student portfolios. As Calfee and Perfumo (1993) observe, portfolios provide "opportunities for a revolution in assessment" in a variety of subject areas and at different levels of schooling.

The purpose of this article is to report on our effort to develop a system for using student portfolios to document growth over an extended period of time in connection with student's learning of a foreign language in a formal classroom setting. The students, who were at both the elementary and high school levels, were enrolled in courses in less commonly taught foreign languages, namely Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Russian in California schools. The 14 programs involved in this project included nearly 1000 students and were part of a larger research project designed to assess strategies for teaching the less commonly taught languages.1

In order to establish a portfolio assessment system that was both sensitive to the learning environments of elementary and secondary foreign language classrooms and students, a literature search on the topic of portfolio assessment in foreign language education was first conducted. Only a few documents which were tangentially related to portfolio assessment in foreign language were identified (e.g., Singer, 1993). A more global search of the literature revealed that, teachers in the subject areas of language arts, social studies, math, and science (Adam and Hamm, 1992; Crowley, 1993; Slater, 1994) were much further along in developing workable systems of student portfolio assessment than in foreign language.

Although there was scant literature on how to develop and implement student portfolios as noted by Herman and Winters (1994), teachers in all subject areas are mostly in agreement that the potential benefits of portfolio assessment are numerous. For example, Adams and Hamm (1992) state that

There are certain important questions which come with the use of portfolios, such as: What should be placed in the portfolio? How often should items be added to the portfolio? Who decides what goes into the portfolio? Who should be given responsibility for its safekeeping? What should be done with the portfolio at the end of the school year? These are just a few of the "nuts and bolts" issues which surface when deciding to implement portfolio assessment in the classroom.

In the field of foreign-language education, the advantages of using portfolios are obvious: provide students with opportunities to display good work, serve as a vehicle for critical self-analysis, and demonstrate mastery of a foreign language. However, an important distinction between a content area such as math or science and learning a new language is that the learner's ability to use the language is the primary object of study, and students' current use of the target language system and potential growth in those abilities over a period of time is what is at issue. Thus it becomes crucial that a student portfolio capture in as many ways as possible the learner's use of the target language. Depending on the emphasis given to the development of reading skills and the ability to compose written products in the foreign language, the use of written products will be a part of the student's portfolio. However, in foreign-language learning, oral skills typically are considered more important than reading and writing skills. Since oral language use of a target language system in both controlled and spontaneous situations cannot be captured through written means, the use of audiotapes and videotapes, takes on increased importance.

Although considerations of what to place in the portfolio and how often to do so are important these decisions by necessity have to be driven by two fundamental considerations: namely, the portfolio's purposes and audiences. We will now turn our attention to how these primary considerations influence the use of student portfolios in the foreign language classroom.


Purposes of the Portfolio
Audiences of the Portfolio
Implications of "Audience/Purpose" Combinations
Analysis and Results
Conclusions and Recommendations

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