PBL and Standardized Tests? It Can Work! | Edutopia
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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

It's never too late to address this subject. Yes, many of us are gearing down from (or gearing up for) the epic standardized testing season, enjoying the freedom, released from the many pressures that come with the tests. However, these tests will keep happening. Whether a yearly course assessment, a six-week benchmark exam or a state-level competency test, teachers and students are inundated with testing. Because of the way that testing permeates education culture, I often hear some "pushback" from teachers about their implementation of PBL. Here are some tips and responses to pushback related to PBL and standardized tests.

PARCC and Smarter Balanced

Although some states have opted out of the PARCC or Smarter Balanced Assessments, many of our students will be taking them -- or something similar to them. Often, I hear concerns around "test preparation" and the question: "Will PBL really prepare them for the test?" I suggest that a better way to think about it is "How will PBL prepare them to rock not only the test, but more?!?" That being said, PARCC and Smarter Balanced is a reality for many of our students and for us. There are some similarities and differences. These high stakes tests do include performance assessments, much like the assessments we create in a PBL project. However, they do not have the voice and choice that we want in a PBL project. However, they focus on application of content and skills, which is a focus of PBL around doing something with the project-aligned content and skills. I also think that if we focus on the 4Cs in our PBL projects, teaching and assessing them, we will more than prepare our students for PARCC or Smarter Balanced assessments. Our fantastic PBL projects can not only serve as a scaffold for these tests, but also prepare our students for college, career, and life!

Don't Wait Until After Testing Season

"I'll wait til after the testing season," is one I hear often. I know where it comes from: the pressure. If you say this, you are defeating the purpose of PBL. PBL's intent is to drive new learning, to engage students in learning critical content that is leveraged and tested. I'm not saying, "Don't do PBL after testing," just that if you truly want to leverage PBL and capitalize on its strengths, use it to teach content that will be on the test. What the PBL teachers often intend to do after testing is a culminating project or activity that will celebrate and review learning. This isn't PBL. However, there is nothing wrong with this sort of project or activity. Keep doing it, because it does engage students. I simply want to make sure that you know the difference between a culminating project and PBL.

Power Standards and Learning Targets

Whether individually or through facilitated professional development, teachers spend a lot of time unpacking the standardized tests and the targeted standards and learning on which they're based. When you are designing a PBL project, make sure it targets those frequently-targeted standards or learning outcomes. If you know that a specific book or genre is target in the AP English Literature exam is tested frequently, then use the PBL project to go in depth on that content. If you know that Linear Equations are tested the most often or weighted more in the state test, then use PBL to ensure that students walk away not only knowing linear equations in and out, but being able to think critically with in and make relevant connections.

Embed Test Stems and Questions in the PBL Project

Standardized test preparation does not need to go "out the window." It can be embedded effectively into the PBL itself. When I create PBL projects, I make sure to look at related test questions and either use them in the project or use the stems to create my own. For example, I might create reading standard stems for the particular fiction or non-fiction text we are reading. These stems might be stolen directly from an AP test or the PARCC/Smarter Balanced Assessment. Although, they are not an exciting form of assessment, they can serve as excellent formative assessments for student learning. They can let me know if students need more test preparation so that the standardized isn’t unfamiliar or intimidating as well as knowing if students have learning the content or skill. Look on at sample test questions and use them to create excellent formative assessments throughout the PBL project.

PBL Projects Where They Fit

Some of us have to deal with testing more frequently than others. If, for example, you have six-week benchmark testing, then you must focus the PBL on the content in that six weeks. Design PBL projects that hit multiple standards in that time period or at least hit a couple of power standards. I've said this before: "Don't try to fit a square peg through a round hole." We've all been in that place of "trying too hard" to make the project work. If it doesn't fit, then don't do it. Work within the structures you have if you want to find an opportune time for an in-depth dive into a PBL project.

Hopefully these tips will help you not only to relax, but also to focus when it comes to designing PBL projects within the world of standardized testing. Don't let those tests hold you back from doing what you know works for students: in-depth, authentic and relevant work that engages all kids. Simply embed and choose times for them that are appropriate and natural. Use PBL projects to aim past the test, not teach it!

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