Tag Archives: portfolio assessment

Portfolios Then and Now

Third grade vs. Eighth grade. Obviously, the thick third grade portfolio wins, right?

One of the things I find myself thinking about a good bit in the last couple of years is how homeschooling changes over time. It ebbs and flows. It has high and low points, as well as more and less intensive times.

A few weeks ago, we did our first updates for the 8th grade portfolios. If you read this blog often, you’ll know that we use portfolio assessment and update each year’s portfolio periodically with the most recent work samples and lists of things like books and field trips.

After we finished the updates I had a moment of panic. You see, it was really, really thin. I’m used to portfolios being these things that just burst open with work. You can see the comparison of Mushroom’s third grade portfolio with his portfolio this year. The third grade one was breaking open with projects and drawings that barely fit. The eighth grade one… not so much.

Third grade work and eighth grade work in Mushroom’s portfolios.

The thing is, it represents so much time and effort. There’s less of the fun little projects, coloring pages, random artworks, and participation certifications. But each plastic sleeve holds a multi-page, revised essay or an algebra exam or a page of samples of Mushroom’s digital artwork projects in Photoshop.

As I looked through this year’s samples, it’s less quantity, but more quality that reflects solid work for their age.

I think it’s important to always remind myself to stay focused on the work that matters, which is mostly process oriented and invisible for things like portfolios. The products change as they get older and that’s appropriate and good. There’s no need to look for those piles of fun worksheet puzzles and quick art projects. It’s good to move on.

This Is Why We Do Portfolios

Mushroom hard at work.
Mushroom hard at work.

I often think of portfolios as being for me. Technically, I suppose, they’re for the threat of the state, but honestly, I taught in schools that used portfolio assessments and I came to believe in them strongly, which is why I would do them even if I wasn’t supposed to keep records of our education (which, by the way, are never checked).

I have an older post about how we do portfolios here. It’s probably due for an upgrade, but things are basically still the same. We toss everything into a box until portfolio time. Then we go through it and the kids choose their best work from all the art, worksheets, dictations, math workbook pages, projects, and so forth. They write a short self-assessment, I write an assessment, and then it all goes in the portfolio in plastic sleeves, which makes it look super neat and pretty.

Every time I do it, it’s a huge boost for me as a teacher. Homeschooling can be lonely, as they say. You don’t get feedback about how you’re doing and it’s easy to lose sight of how things are going. It’s hard to feel like you’re getting anywhere. Putting together the portfolio, with the list of all the books we read, field trips we took, and all those examples of work is such a huge boost. You can see the progress and it’s very gratifying for me as a teacher.

For the last few weeks, Mushroom’s anxiety levels have been up. He’s had trouble finishing up his work for the school year simply because he’s been so keyed up with worries about everything and nothing. The moment he started to go through his work, he lit up with joy. By the time he had compiled all his examples, he was glowing. Seeing all the work he did over the summer was a huge boost to his self-confidence.

I’m reminded how important it is to celebrate our kids’ work and how it doesn’t have to be done with anything but a figurative mirror. Having the time and space to pause and see what he had done was a great experience for him.


I wrote this post ages ago and then didn’t get around to posting it…  or anything else.  So add blogging to my shortfalls lately.  I have just been overwhelmed with work!  Life is full but maybe too full.  Perhaps I’ll hash it all out for myself in a post on finding balance.  In the meantime though…

We got slightly behind on our portfolios, but as it was overdue, I thought I’d do something different and give myself an assessment as well.  For the kids’ portfolios, I fill out a quick sheet that has three categories:

Things to be proud of
Things to work on
Other things to say

If you’re curious, I have a detailed post about how we do portfolios here. Here for you is my own assessment of how I’m doing as a homeschooler, using the same format, though I’ve been a bit more wordy with myself than I am with the kids.

Things to be proud of
I got things off to a good start for third grade.  The organization system I put in with the new white boards has been working pretty well, especially after a minor update of the topics.  We’ve been consistently working, using our mornings and usually getting a lot done.  I have been especially good about making sure we do our Monday copywork or dictations and have been picking and discussing passages I feel pretty good about from the books we’re reading.  I have been doing a good job teaching math and have done some really good projects for math.  We’ve also had very good read alouds across the board for every subject.  I’ve done a number of fun, creative things for logic and thinking skills, such as the One Hour Mysteries and the Bananagrams puzzles.

I’ve done a good job helping BalletBoy during our one on one school time and that has been very productive.  When I realized that Mushroom’s spelling simply wasn’t improving, we talked about it and I changed course to do something outside my comfort zone by getting him All About Spelling. Overall, we’re plugging away at the year and doing well.

Things to work on
While I’ve kept up our monthly required reading books, I haven’t been as great about our other two monthly requirements: the writing project and the art project.  We have done some fun art, including a day outside doing great nature sketching, but we haven’t been as consistent as I wanted.  I need to make this a bigger priority and include it more often as something to break up more serious lessons.  I know the kids would appreciate that.  Writing projects are harder to work in, but I need to plan them ahead of time instead of waiting for inspiration to make them grow out of what we’re doing.  Sometimes that works, but it’s easier to have a plan and change gears than to suddenly find myself at the end of the month without having initiated a writing project.

In general, I’ve lost a bit of my creative juices for history.  We’ve been progressing, but too slowly and part of that is that I’m not doing as many fun projects for us.  We did do some fun art for our Australia unit, but in general, I need to be on top of history a little more because otherwise we won’t get up to World War I by the summer, which has been my goal.

While I’ve found really good quality one on one time with BalletBoy, the one on one time with Mushroom has been much more lacking.  Part of this isn’t my fault as the timing is weird, but I need to make more of an effort.  I also need to make more of an effort to keep him reading consistently.

Other things to say
Drama and acting has been handed off to others this term and I’ve really appreciated that.  Music has finally started and I am glad that the kids don’t mind practicing piano.  Science has just returned to us after being mostly handled by friends and the Botanic Gardens class.  We have been overcommitted this fall and I am glad to be dialing back a little bit.  It was a beautiful fall and we were outside a lot, which was positive.  Co-op is going extremely well and I am very happy with our group this year.

The Nitty Gritty Portfolio Post

Question: How do you know how much work to keep?

Question: How do you assess your child if you don’t give grades?


There are lots of different ways to do a portfolio, but I’m going to write about our process.  I previously taught at a school that did portfolio assessment instead of grades so I was greatly influenced by that experience.  We’re required to keep a portfolio by law (keep in mind that if you are too, this is not legal advice as regulations and requirements differ), but we would keep one anyway.  Here’s why:

  • It’s nice to have a set of representative samples and saved items from the year.  My kids (and I) already look back on previous portfolios with nostalgia.
  • It frees you from feeling like there’s some reason to keep piles of artwork and finished workbooks.
  • It allows you to stop and reflect periodically, which can be important for pacing your year, focusing on skills that need improvement, and celebrating growth and change.  After you do the portfolio, you’ll realize that you did something, which will usually let you take a deep breath of relief.
  • It allows the kids to set goals and reflect on their own work and progress.

What You Need

First of all, you need a binder to keep things in for each child.  You use the same binder to go through this process several times over the course of the school year.  I’m especially fond of the Staples Better Binders, which are pricey, but come in pretty colors and are extra durable.  Ours is currently a 1″ binder, which is just enough.  If you choose to keep stuff the way we have, you also need a box of sheet protectors like these.  I know it seems like a terrible waste, but if you’re planning to keep the portfolio long term (as I am) then that helps.  Plus, it helps keep the whole thing easy to browse and uniformly neat.

Next, you need a calendar where you can jot things down.  That, or a really good memory.  I schedule a portfolio day on our calendar every two months.  The purpose of this day is to update the portfolio.  I also use the calendar to jot down every field trip and class we participate in.  You can see it’s a pretty simple affair, just hanging on the kitchen blackboard.  (And made by my awesome friend from old picture books!)

Finally, you need a place to stash artwork and stray worksheets or writings until it’s time to go over it.  For me, the beauty of my system is that we don’t have to consider it until portfolio time.  In the meantime, it gets shoved into a little cubby for each child.  Below is a picture of our cubbies, just two paper trays, all cleaned out.  Usually, they’re stuffed full.

Writing an Assessment

The assessment piece is my biggest task for the portfolio.  There are three sheets of paper that go into the portfolio that I write.  They are:

  1. an assessment of the student for that two month period
  2. a list of all the field trips and classes from that period, as well as some of the books
  3. a very brief summary of our materials and progress for each subject matter

The list is the easiest part.  I simply draw from our calendar to remember all the outings and field trips.  The summary of materials and progress for each subject is also usually very easy.  I update anything that needs to be changed, such as which volume of Explode the Code the kids are on or which topic we’re up to in history.  Each subject only has 2-4 sentences so I keep it short and sweet.

The assessment is a hardest piece.  I include three different categories:

  • Things to be proud of:
  • Things to work on:
  • Other important things to say:

It may be slightly hard for me to assess how hard this might be for other homeschool parents.  As a teacher, I had to write hundreds of narrative assessments for students over the years.  I can knock these out pretty quickly and I find writing them pretty intuitive.  Basically, I just think about my kids and answer those three questions.  I consider academics, especially the three R’s, social and emotional issues, and behavior.  After I’ve written them, I always consult the Husband and see if I’ve left out anything essential.

The three pages of the assessment get tucked into a sheet protector and go in the portfolio.  These mark the beginning of the assessment period.  They’ll be followed by the goals and sample work.  Then the next set will go in after, keeping the whole thing chronological.

The example below is one of the longer assessments I’ve done.  Sometimes, they’re barely half that.


Next, it’s time to set some goals.  This is a pretty simple process.  I ask the kids to come up with 2-4 goals for the two month period.  They should be realistically achievable goals and as specific as possible.  If a goal isn’t measurable, then it’s hard to know if you achieved it.  I remind the kids they can set goals for reading, writing and math or for other areas of life like sports, games and friends.  Both Mushroom and BalletBoy often set a video game goal, such as to finish a certain level.  Other goals they’ve chosen include to kick the soccer ball during a game, read a certain number of books, and try a certain number of new foods.

I type up the goals (when they’re older, they’ll have to do this themselves) and put that sheet in with the assessment sheets I wrote.

Choosing Examples

Next, we pull out that huge mess of artwork and stray papers.  I stack up the current workbooks with them.  The kids must go through it all and cull until they have chosen a small pile of samples, usually between 5-8.  I put a checklist on the board telling them what categories of work they must include, such as a page of math, a page with writing, a page of logic, etc.  Ideally, they will choose a piece of work that is especially memorable for them or of which they’re especially proud.  You can see the work and the portfolio ready to be sorted (along with BalletBoy’s favorite doll) below.

As they choose samples, I choose samples too.  I also choose “best work” examples, because that’s the type of portfolio we’re compiling.  But you can see below that sometimes, such as BalletBoy’s “black hole” picture, that the choices may mostly be personal.

Anything that is too large to fit in a sheet protector either gets trimmed (if it’s just ever so much bigger) or photographed and printed off.  Each sample goes into a sheet protector and into the binder.  You can see that some bits are sticking up a little above the sheet protectors.

Then (and here’s the relief part), all the other work, including any finished workbooks, go into the recycle bin.  Whew.

Reading the Portfolio

The last step of portfolio process is reading the portfolio.  Each child gets to sit by himself with me to do the first reading. I read them the entire assessment, including the lists (though I usually skip the subjects section).  We talk about anything that comes up in the assessment, such as how they’re going to work on things that have been hard or if they’re really proud of their accomplishments.

Next, he shows off all the pieces of work in the portfolio and tells me about each one.

When we’re satisfied, then I take the front assessment sheet out, the one that says things to be proud of and things to work on, and we each sign it.  Can you see that BalletBoy and I both signed the bottom of the page there?

Finally, each child is expected to show the portfolio to someone else.  Usually this is the Husband, but occasionally it’s visiting grandparents.  They have to show off the work from that section and tell about it.

The Finished Portfolio

At the end of the school year, the portfolio binder has had this same process happen 5 or 6 times and is usually ready to burst.  I also stick other important things inside the pockets, including our co-op’s little yearbook and the kids’ science journals.  The portfolio gets a final read all the way through then goes up on the shelf in the basement.  You can see things shoved into the binder pockets below.

A lot goes into our portfolios, but the reality is that I don’t have to do anything to keep them updated on a daily or even weekly basis.  As long as I jot down one word notes on the calendar for field trips (and, really, even if I forget) and shove all the random doodles I come across into the kids’ cubbies, then one day every two months allows us to get the whole thing taken care of.  To me, that day is worth our time because it does give us room for a little breath of reflection.  Not to mention that it allows me to be lazy about assessment all the other days!


The Joy of Assessment

That’s right.  I think it’s a joy.  I’m here to proclaim my love for it.  Assessment in schools is usually a dreary affair of grades and standardized tests, with lots of pressure thrown in.  Our assessment isn’t like that.

We are lucky enough to live somewhere with what I consider to be pretty minimal homeschool regulation.  On the one hand, it’s overly vague.  On the other hand, they reputedly don’t have any staff to enforce the vagueness anyway, so it’s hard to get too fussed about it.  Of course, the fact that I have a master’s degree in education and therefore can speak at least a little of their language probably makes me overly cocky.

The primary requirement we have is simply to do something for every subject (exactly what is the vague part) and to keep records (exactly how is similarly vague).  We would do this anyway.  I can’t imagine not doing this in some form.  Beyond disorganization (which I totally understand and suffer from as well), I don’t really understand why any homeschooler wouldn’t want to keep track of what their kids are doing.

I’ve tried to make a steady routine for us, which we’ve used for more than two years now.  The writing elements for me are usually pretty quick.  I try not to spend more than an hour on them total.  Every two months, we update portfolios.  Here’s what what we do:

  • I make a list of every class, performance, and field trip we’ve taken, as well as all the read aloud books we’ve finished
  • I write a 1-3 sentence summary of what we’re doing in each subject.  For some subjects, this doesn’t change from time to time or only changes in small ways, such as that we’re studying Rome instead of Greece.
  • I write a quick assessment of each kid where I answer two questions with a few sentences: What’s something to be proud of?  What’s something to work on?
  • I give the kids all the “work” we’ve saved up over the last two months.  This is mostly drawings and a few worksheets or evidence of projects.  I tell them to pick three or four pieces that are special and worth saving.
  • Next, I pick three or four pieces that I think are worth saving.
  • The kids and I sit down and make between 2-4 goals that I type up for the next two months.  This is totally their call.  Often, the goals surprise me.  They can be very silly or very ambitious and academic.
  • I compile all the parts into a binder.  We sit down and read through all of it together and we each sign the front sheet.  We also look at whether they met their goals from the last go around and occasionally look at the older work in the rest of the binder.
  • Very last, I throw away all the drawings, worksheets, pamphlets and junk that has accumulated over the previous two months.
BalletBoy's Portfolio. It has one of the signs from his lemonade stand.

After we’re finished, I always feel amazing about what we did.  I’m usually amazed to realize that the kids saw multiple plays and concerts or that we finished as many books at bedtime as we did.  When I type up things I think the kids should be proud of, I feel prouder for them than I would otherwise.  When I think about what we need to work on, it prioritizes it for me and when I read it to them, they take it seriously.

Mushroom's Portfolio from earlier in the year. Notice the super-awesome Dalek he colored! The other page is from a class about fingerprints we did with our mystery themed co-op.

That’s the joy.  Our lives are full.  They’re full of activities, social commitments, books, projects and errands.  Assessments make us stop and appreciate all that we do and, by talking about goals and things to work on, they let us look at the road ahead.