National Writing Project

Assessment Challenges in the Common Core Era

By: Mary Ann Smith, Sandra Murphy
Publication: English Journal
Date: September 2013

Summary: The Common Core State Standards call for students to be able to write over different time frames, and for "a range of tasks, purposes, and audiences." Sandra Murphy and Mary Ann Smith break down this concept of "range" and propose a portfolio model for cultivating and assessing it, providing suggestions and guiding questions for the interested educator.


Portfolios fit the criteria listed above for effective formative assessment and they have some special advantages of their own. While most assessment tools are wedged into a narrow passage that accommodates only an examinee and an examiner, portfolios can be shared with other students, teachers, and parents. Portfolios can be carried forward from year to year. They can live in school and they can live outside of school, particularly if they are digital. Except at certain check points during the year, they don't ever have to be set in concrete. The evidence grows and changes and is accessible to everyone.

As a classroom assessment tool, portfolios make visible things that aren't easily seen. For example, portfolios reveal the extent to which students can manipulate a particular task for a particular purpose, the decisions students make about processes such as planning and revising, and the students' evaluation of their progress toward a goal. They play a critical role in assessing how each student fares when it comes to reading and writing across a range. Best of all, portfolios do not rob the teacher or the student of time for learning in the classroom. They are part of learning.

Imagine a scenario like this: A teacher points to a colorful folder or uploads an efolder on the computer screen. 'This is your portfolio,' the teacher says. 'Every quarter you'll choose several pieces of your work to put in it. I'll ask you to write about why you picked these pieces, and what you intended when you wrote them. I may also ask you to write about how you wrote them, what special problems they posed for you, and what you learned about reading, writing, speaking and listening. In other words, you will have the main responsibility for preparing and presenting your work for evaluation."

About the Authors

MARY ANN SMITH is a former middle school and high school teacher, and is the former director of both the Bay Area Writing Project and the California Writing Projects Network, as well as the former director of Government Relations and Public Affairs for the National Writing Project.

SANDRA MURPHY is a former high school English teacher and former director of the Center for Cooperative Research and Extension Services for Schools, and is now a professor emeritus at the University of California, Davis.

Murphy, Sandra and Mary Ann Smith. "Assessment Challenges in the Common Core Era." English Journal 103:1 (2013) 104-110. Copyright ©2013 by the National Council of Teachers of English. Reprinted with permission.

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