Ongoing Assessment Question 1

1. How should an ELL's performance be assessed by a classroom teacher or a group of classroom teachers? Performance-based assessment is a type of assessment in which students demonstrate what they can actually do. Portfolio assessment is one type of performance-based assessment in which students are evaluated on what they produce in the classroom. This type of evaluation is thought to be a more authentic reflection of the student's capabilities. Portfolios are appropriate for all students (Gomez, 1998), and can be of great benefit to secondary school teachers working with ELLs (Solis, 1993).

A portfolio is a collection of artifacts. Portfolios are commonly found in the arts, but in ever increasing numbers are now being used in classrooms for both students and teachers. The portfolio should be viewed as a display case containing works representative of a student's best scholastic efforts, rather than as a storage bin for every item a student produces in class.

Regular classroom teachers using portfolios to assess ELLs need to understand how second-language acquisition impacts student learning and the products that demonstrate learning. These teachers should be paired with ESL teachers who have had training in second-language acquisition to examine student work with a shared perspective (Gomez,1999).

When implementing a portfolio assessment program in the classroom, it is useful to think about what makes a successful portfolio. Moya and O'Malley (1994) identified five characteristics of an exemplary ELL portfolio: it is (1) comprehensive, (2) predetermined and systematic, (3) tailored, (4) informative, and (5) authentic. The following discussion of Moya and O'Malley's five key portfolio characteristics takes a number of issues into account.

    (1) Comprehensive. A portfolio is comprehensive if there is both breadth and depth to the artifacts contained in it. One or more teachers, members of a school-wide committee, or members of a district-wide committee may be involved in determining what merits a work being included in the portfolio. It is also important to have artifacts that ESL and regular classroom teachers can easily collect and manage.

The following questions can help determine if the contents of an ELL's portfolio are comprehensive:

  • Have the items in the portfolio been carefully selected to show the range of language and literacy skills the student has mastered as well as the ELL's growth in content knowledge and skill?
  • Do the items in the portfolio indicate broad as well as "deep" knowledge?
  • Do the items indicate the student's mastery of higher-level thinking skills?
  • Do the items illustrate any special talent or skill that the student possesses?
  • Are there examples of cross-curricular artifacts in the portfolio?
  • Are there artifacts that represent both formal and informal assessments?
  • ELLs need to be taught both oral and written English language skills. Is there evidence of oral language development as well as that of literacy skills?
  • Are there artifacts that illustrate the ELL's appreciation for his or her rich cultural heritage?

    (2) Predetermined and Systematic. A portfolio is predetermined when its purposes, aims, and recommended artifacts have been established in advance. When both a classroom teacher and an ESL teacher or bilingual education specialist serve ELL students, it is important for all of the educators to work together to determine a systematic way of gathering artifacts for the portfolio.

The following questions can help determine if the portfolio policy is predetermined and if the contents are systematically gathered.

  • Are the purposes and aims of the portfolio clear and well articulated?
  • Have these purposes and aims been communicated to all of the relevant stakeholders?
  • Are the contents gathered on a regular basis?
  • Does the portfolio represent the range and level of skills that students are expected to master -- e.g., ESL standards, state or district ESL standards, and/or the standards for the course of study?
  • Have lists of potential portfolio contents been developed and agreed upon by various stakeholders such as parents, teachers, and school administrators? The adult stakeholders may wish to work together to develop a portfolio contents checklist. There can be one checklist or several different ones.
  • Have the students developed their content checklist for the portfolio? ELLs and native English speakers may be teamed up together to develop a portfolio contents list.

    (3) Informative. A portfolio is informative if it conveys useful data about the student's progress and achievement to the classroom teacher, the ESL teacher or bilingual education specialist, other staff members, parents, and the student him/herself. A writing sample taken at the beginning of the year compared to one from the end of the year should give all stakeholders a clear idea of the student's academic growth.

The following are questions that can help determine if stakeholders will find the portfolio informative.

  • What type of information does the portfolio provide the teachers? Does the portfolio assist the teachers in making instructional decisions pertaining to a student as well as a group of students?
  • What type of information does the portfolio convey to parents? Do the contents of the portfolio accurately display the student's skills and achievements? (Any documents given to parents regarding portfolios should be translated into the parents' primary language. Since all parents may not be literate in their primary language, interpreters should be made available who can orally translate for the parents.)
  • What type of information does the portfolio offer to ELLs themselves?
  • Have students been taught how their portfolio artifacts document their academic achievement and growth?
  • Have rubrics been designed to help all stakeholders understand the contents of the portfolio?

    (4) Tailored. A model portfolio is crafted to meet specific objectives. The specific objectives of a tailored portfolio are designed to meet the particular needs of the student as well as the broader goals of the teacher, school, school district, and state or territory where the student attends school. The process for determining the specific contents of a classroom portfolio should be led by the classroom teacher, but might also involve input and feedback from other stakeholders involved such as the ESL teacher or bilingual education specialist. For example, a classroom teacher might use a portfolio to communicate a student's development and progress to other teachers, the ESL teacher, or the bilingual education specialist.

These questions may help determine if a portfolio has been tailored to meet its specific objectives.

  • Is the portfolio tailored to meet applicable priorities and goals? For example, if the portfolio is being used to display a student's annual progress, does it clearly demonstrate that student's academic growth over the year?
  • Are there a variety of recommended items included in the student's portfolio based on his or her specific English language and literacy levels?
  • If students possess literacy skills in their primary language, are there opportunities for them to demonstrate such knowledge and growth through their portfolio?
  • Does the portfolio at the very least provide a glimpse into the student's rich cultural and linguistic heritage?

    (5) Authentic. A portfolio is authentic if its artifacts derive from actual classroom activities. The portfolio should include work resulting from tasks carried out in the classroom. Such tasks should incorporate oral and written literacy exercises designed to foster both academic skills and English language development.

The following are questions that can help determine if portfolio contents are authentic.

  • Do artifacts in the portfolio represent authentic tasks conducted in the classroom?
  • Are the artifacts in the portfolio examples of purposeful work such as a story the child has written, a thank you note to a classroom visitor, or a personal budget?
  • Has the ELL been involved in the selection of artifacts for inclusion in the portfolio?


Gomez, E. (1998). Portfolio assessment and English language learners: An annotated bibliography. Providence, RI: Northeast and Islands Regional Educational Laboratory. Available:

Gomez, E. (1999, March). Creating large-scale assessment portfolios that include English language learners. Perspectives on policy and practice. Providence, RI: Northeast and Islands Regional Educational Laboratory. Available:

Moya, S., & O'Malley, M. (1994, Spring). A portfolio assessment model for ESL. Journal of Educational Issues of Language Minority Students, 13, 13-36.

Solis, A. (1993, November-December). Portfolios in secondary ESL classroom assessment: Bringing it all together. IDRA Newsletter.