Pauline's Guide to Homeschooling in PA

Creating a Homeschooling Portfolio

The Pennsylvania home education law requires that you create a portfolio for your home educated child.

There is much controversy about a number of the items required in the portfolio.  General practice varies widely.  On this page I express my opinion, which may vary from that of your evaluator, and/or school district.  I strongly suggest that you read The Law for yourself and read a number of interpretations before you decide what approach your family will be using.

Generally speaking, the portfolio tells a story of your child's homeschooling year.  There are MANY WAYS to do a portfolio, and every one will be different because there's a different story to tell.  The important thing is to not feel bullied or pressured about it (as much as possible) and to find a way to comply with The Law that suits YOU and what you do and how you do it.

There are several required parts to the portfolio – The Log, the samples, and the test scores.  (See right).  You can use all of these to tell the story of your homeschooling year, but you don't have to go overboard on any/all of them.

  • Some families will tell their story mainly through the list of books their child has read during the year.  Another will have many samples of their child's work and pictures of the child's activities.  Another will have great test scores.
  • On the other hand, some families will use mainly textbooks - their log may be brief.  Another will do lots of hands-on activities and field trips - they may have few samples of their child's written work.  Another family may have children who do not score well on tests - they may include lots of samples of the work that has actually been produced.
  • Some families include a detailed description of what they've been doing, such as a day-to-day record of instruction in their log.  Others prefer to let the finished work tell the tale - their log may be a bare bones list of reading materials used.
  • What's important is to use all of the required elements in whatever way works best for you to tell the story of your child's homeschooling year.
  • Some families are very private, and they may wish to keep most of their story private, providing only the minimum required by law.  They may choose “generic” school work, rather than personal expression, and may choose not to include photos.  Others have a friendly relationship with their evaluator, and have no problem with sharing a more in-depth, personal look at their story.  Either way, consider that many folks urge that you not "raise the bar" for other homeschoolers by producing an amazing-beyond-belief document -- something that even you may not be able to sustain over the long term, especially in years with a new baby, a move, illness in the family, etc.

I have given many ideas on my site to help you see ways that you can tell the story of your child's year.  Please don't get overwhelmed!  You do not need to do all of these things!  You can choose the best way to tell the unique story of your child's year - the way that's best for YOU!

What does my evaluator expect to see?

There is considerable variation in what evaluators expect to see from homeschoolers, and how they interpret the law. I cannot tell you what your particular evaluator will expect - only they can tell you that.

There are three things that, by law, must be included in the portfolio:

  • a log, made contemporaneously with the instruction, which designates by title the reading materials used,
  • samples of any writings, worksheets, workbooks or creative materials used or developed by the student
  • and in grades three, five and eight results of nationally normed standardized achievement tests in reading/language arts and mathematics or the results of Statewide tests administered in these grade levels.

After reviewing the portfolio and interviewing your child, your evaluator must be able to certify that your child is being educated in the subjects required, for the time specified by law, and is making "sustained progress" in the overall program.  Evaluators have different standards for portfolios, and you will want to be sure before hiring an evaluator to understand what they will require.  In particular, get a sense in advance of the number of samples of work you'll need, and be sure your evaluator is comfortable with your method of keeping your log.  Most people try to construct their portfolio to make it clear that they have been in compliance with the law, and that their child is doing just fine, without going overboard. See my All About Evaluations & Evaluator List page for more info.

What if my child is graduating this year?

The October 2014 law change gives home educators a new option for their child's high school diploma - a state-recognized diploma awarded by the supervisor. For this diploma:

  • The student receiving the diploma must have completed all of the graduation requirements in the home education law, while enrolled in a home education program that is in compliance with the home education law.
  • The diploma must be on a standardized form developed by the PA Department of Education, which is available on their website.
  • The diploma must be signed by the student's twelfth grade evaluator in confirmation of the student's suitability for graduation.

If you want to award this type of diploma to your student, you should discuss with your evaluator what she wants to see in the portfolio so that she can confirm that the student has completed the graduation requirements and is therefore suitable for graduation.

The graduation requirements include the following minimum courses in grades nine through twelve:

  • Four years of English
  • Three years of mathematics.
  • Three years of science.
  • Three years of social studies
  • Two years of arts and humanities.

In addition, at some point in grades 7 through 12, "...the following courses shall be taught..". Some people interpret the law to mean that these courses are part of the graduation requirements; others do not.

  • English, to include language, literature, speech and composition;
  • mathematics, to include general mathematics, algebra and geometry;
  • science;
  • social studies, to include civics, world history, history of the United States and Pennsylvania; geography;
  • art; music;
  • physical education; health; and safety education, including regular and continuous instruction in the dangers and prevention of fires. 

Will anyone else need to see your portfolio?

There may be other considerations when preparing the records that make up your portfolio.  You may need records for an umbrella school, diploma program, or for college applications.  You may have special circumstances, such as a custody battle, where you may have to defend your homeschooling program.  Most people do not need to keep extensive records, but consider your situation carefully before deciding how to document your child's homeschool year.  You may or may not decide to share all of these records with your evaluator.

What You Need To Show Your Evaluator (In Plain English)

At the end of the year, you must produce several things.  They are The Log, Samples of Work, Standardized Test Results, and the Evaluator's Certification.

The required portfolio items are usually put into a three-ring binder, scrapbook, or folder to be reviewed by the evaluator. After the evaluator reviews the portfolio and interviews the student, they will provide you with their certification that the student has had an appropriate education. You will then need to submit a copy of this certification to the superintendent of your school district. 

Every portfolio is different - one will have lots of books listed in the log, another lots of photos of hands-on work, another will have lots of worksheets.  Please don't get overwhelmed by the number of things I've suggested here!

The Log

See my log page for more info on this requirement.

Standardized Test Results

See my testing page for more info on testing.

Samples of Work

“...samples of any writings, worksheets, workbooks or creative materials used or developed by the student..."

During the year:

As you go through the year, keep an eye out for things that may be useful for the portfolio. There are two general methods:

  1. Save stuff now, organize it later:
    As you go along, save samples of your child's work for the portfolio in a basket, bin, or box.  You don't have to save every piece of paper, just the best work.  In the spring, you can go through it all to put together your binder of samples.  The advantage to this method is that you can save the task until the spring, when the bulk of your school year will be finished and you may have more time to devote to it.
  2. Organize weekly or monthly:
    Take a few minutes every week or two to go through your child's work.  Put stuff worth keeping into a binder or scrapbook.  The advantage to this method is that you can look at what you've done and feel like you're accomplishing something as you go along.  It also may show any weak areas while you still have time to work on them.

Don't get overwhelmed by the need for samples!  Most homeschoolers include at least one item for each subject required by law.  That's only about 16 things.  For the more important subjects (writing, math, etc.) you may wish to have several items. (Some evaluators may want more.)  As a general rule, if you save one or two items a week you should easily have enough by the end of the year.  (Check with your evaluator about her standards.)  It's a good idea to keep in mind the subjects required by law, so you can be sure to keep a sample or jot down a note about the minor ones when they come up during the course of the year.

It's easy to hate doing this, but keeping a portfolio can be much more than meeting a state requirement.  Your children will have something concrete to pull out when they want to show someone what they've done - especially useful when applying for a job or for college.  Best of all, your family can look through & relive the year's accomplishments- a real boost when you hit a rough spot in schooling.

Putting it all together: Thoughts about the portfolio format

  • You don't need to have a fancy lacy binder, or to snow the evaluator with tons of stuff.  The portfolio is, bottom line, paperwork.  It doesn't have to be an art project, unless you want it that way.
  • Some folks use a three-ring binder, others make a scrapbook, others use a pocket folder.  Some portfolios are three or four inches thick, others are less than an inch.  Some folks manage to fit the whole thing into a pocket folder!  More is not always better!  Check with your evaluator about her expectations and standards, and consider common practice in your area.
  • Put in enough work to demonstrate progress.  (Ask your evaluator about her standards.)
  • Some evaluators look for something from each of the subjects required by law, to see that you've covered them. This can include a worksheet, a photo or description of an activity, brochures from a field trip, a book on the topic in your book log, or whatever.  Another approach is to write a brief summary of what you've done over the year in each of the various required subjects.  Note that many people, including the PDE, interpret the law to mean that not all subjects must be taught each year.  However, many folks generally touch on these subjects at some time during the year anyway, so they mention them. Discuss this with your evaluator so you know what to expect.
  • If your child is not doing well in a particular subject, don't panic.  Your child does not have to be a super achiever to homeschool.  However, do make sure the work and instruction done in that area are well documented.  If, for example, test scores are low in a particular subject, you can write about what you've done to improve, and what progress has been made.

Examples of things you may wish to include:

  • Writing Samples:  You can include thank you letters to relatives (just photocopy them before you mail them), book reports, short answer essays, worksheets, writing exercises, and/or journal entries.  Writing samples can also cover another subject - for example an essay about the solar system, or a worksheet about the Constitution, or a report on a book about the human body.
  • Math Work:  A useful thing to include is a worksheet of basic math problems at your child's grade level.  (If you don't usually do math this way, you may want to do a page just for the portfolio.)  Math can also include designs and patterns, logic problems, a list of math books, recipes, photos of block castles or tangram designs, a list of board games, and other things.
  • Samples for each of the major subjects:  These can be worksheets, essays, tests (if you use them), photos or descriptions of activities or projects, etc.  In some cases you might want to create a worksheet specifically for the portfolio, even if you don't usually do worksheets.  (You can also show that you've covered a subject by an entry in your log.)
  • Brochures and programs:  An easy way to document activities is to gather brochures and programs from museums, plays, community events, library programs, classes, etc.  They can be put into a sheet protector or put into a scrapbook.  This is a useful way to show activities for subjects such as music, which doesn't generate much paper.  On the other hand, some folks just include a list of such activities, or mention them in the log.  Since these items are not, strictly speaking, "samples of work" (though of course they show educational activities), you will probably want to include some actual paper-and-pencil work somewhere in the portfolio.
  • Certificates and awards:  These can come from any programs or classes your child completed, such as scouts, Science in the Summer, etc.  You can also print out the summary pages/awards from educational software programs.
  • Pictures:  If it won't fit in the binder, take a picture!  Take pictures of hands-on projects such as artwork, science projects, collections, and displays.  Take pictures at fieldtrips & presentations.  You may also wish to include pictures of your kids working & playing with other kids.  Pictures are a good way to document things that don't generate paper!
  • Captions:  Some homeschoolers write descriptions of the items in the portfolio.  "Johnny liked the trip to the nature center". "Susan earned several Girl Scout badges this year."  "Mike went skiing for the first time."  This helps explain what the item is and why it's there.  If you use sheet protectors, you can put the caption on a small slip of paper and slip it into the bottom of the sheet protector pocket.
  • List of Activities:  Some folks include a brief list of activities they've done in a particular subject area.  This is a way to show the scope of their activities without having to generate a piece of paper for each one.  It is particularly good for younger children, who may do many hands-on activities that don’t produce written work.  If you plan to do this you should keep notes throughout the year -- you'd be surprised what you forget, and the years begin to run together after a while!

Again -- every portfolio is different - one will have lots of books in the log, another lots of photos of hands-on work, another lots of worksheets.  Please don't get overwhelmed by the number of things I've suggested here!

The "Disposable Portfolio"

Before the 2014 law change, portfolios had to be submitted to the district. Some folks, concerned about the district losing their portfolio, or keeping it for several months, created a "disposable portfolio" to submit to their district. To create such a portfolio, make copies of the things you want to include. The copies can be stapled together, bound using brads or a report cover, or put into a pocket folder. Because copying everything in a huge portfolio would be a big pain, these portfolios are usually fairly slim, but still contain all that is required by law. Such a portfolio usually consists of:

  • Title page and/or cover letter
  • Evaluator's letter, test scores (if required), and possibly a 1-page attendance chart,
  • Brief log, listing textbooks and/or other books,
  • 8-20 samples and/or descriptions of work (including math, writing, science, social studies (geography, history, civics), fire safety, health/physiology, and perhaps phys ed, music, and art)
  • Some folks also include a brief (2-3 sentences) description of the student's work in each subject - this is not required by law but is an easy way to show that the subjects have been covered and to assure the reader that the student's work was much more extensive than just the samples of work shown.

This can be a handy way to keep a slim packet of the minimum legal documentation for your records. (Keeping larger portfolios can take up a lot of space over the years!) If you choose this approach, you can also bring other items to your evaluation if you like. If you are only assembling the more minimal version, be sure you hire an evaluator who will accept such a portfolio (some will, some won't). 

A personal note - before the October 2014 law change, my district once lost one of my children's portfolios - they found it again two-and-a-half years later, held together with a rubber band instead of the nice binder I had used. (This, despite the fact that it had "please return to:" with my name, address, and phone number on the cover!) While this kind of thing certainly doesn't happen often, needless to say, I'm a fan of the disposable portfolio!

What if my district asks for more than the law requires? 

As of the October 2014 change to the home education law, only the evaluator's certification that an appropriate education is occurring for the school year under review needs to be given to the superintendent of your school district (by June 30). Nonetheless, some school districts have a history of asking homeschoolers for things that are not required by law.  In this case, see Handling School District Problems.  Also, there is no substitute for reading The Law for yourself!

Turning in Your End-Of-Year Paperwork

When should I submit my end of year paperwork?

Before June 30. The law says, "An evaluator's certification stating that an appropriate education is occurring for the school year under review shall be provided by the supervisor to the superintendent of the public school district of residence by June 30 of each year."

Note that as of the October 2014 law change, you do NOT need to give your portfolio to the school district. You do NOT need to give them your log, any samples of work, or the results of 3rd/5th/8th grade standardized testing. Only the evaluator's certification must be submitted.

Where and how should I turn in my end-of-year paperwork to the district?

First, be sure to submit a only a copy of the evaluator's certification; keep the original for your records. (Or ask your evaluator to provide two originals - one for the district, and one for your records.)

Call your district to find out where you should submit your paperwork. There are three ways you can submit it - in person, by appointment, or by mail.

  • In person - By submitting in person, you can be sure the paperwork gets to the appropriate person, on time. Be sure to get a receipt to show that you have turned it in - every year a handful of paperwork goes missing. Call ahead to find out where you should submit your paperwork, and when that office is open.  (Some district offices keep summer hours.)  For some families, it is also an opportunity to have a brief, usually pleasant interaction with school district personell, helping them to get to know and respect the home educators in the district. (If you are not comfortable with this approach, you do not have to do it; you can submit by mail instead.)
  • By mail - This is a good choice if you are uncomfortable going to a school district office in person, or if you can't spend the time to do so. Call ahead to find out the best way to address the envelope, to be sure it gets to the right person. (If you feel uncomfortable calling, you can address it to the superintendent; however, if someone else generally handles homeschooling paperwork, the superintendent's staff may or may not redirect it appropriately, which could result in a more-uncomfortable phone call!) Talk to the post office about the best way to send it - you want to be sure you get a receipt to show that it was received. 
  • By appointment - In the past, some folks scheduled an appointment with the superintendent, so that he could review the portfolio during the appointment and return them immediately. Since the October 2014 law change eliminates this portfolio review, most folks are unlikely to make an appointment to submit their paperwork. Remember that there is no need for the district to see or interview your children.  You are NOT required to meet with the superintendent, and you should carefully consider whether doing so will create the expectation that others will do so too.

Consider including next year's affidavit and objectives.

If you will be home educating again the next year, your affidavit and objectives aren't due until August 1. However, it may be easier to include them when you submit the evaluator's certification from the previous year. This means you only need to submit paperwork once a year.

However, if you are tight on time, you can submit the evaluator's certification by June 30, and take a bit more time to create and submit the affidavit and objectives.