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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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How PBL Prepares Students for CCSS Test Performance Tasks: Part 2 - PBL is Already Aligned for Assessment

John Larmer

Editor in Chief at the Buck Institute for Education

Editor's Note: This is the second part of a report adapted from the Buck Institute for Education's Google+ Hangout of April 9, 2014 with Justin Wells of Envision Learning Partners and BIE National Faculty member Andrew Miller. In Part 1, we discussed how the Common Core tests are being designed, and looked at a sample ELA performance task for assessing research skills.

How PBL Aligns with CCSS Assessments

In contrast to earlier tests that were mostly "based on the nouns, measuring what students knew," claims Justin, "what we're now measuring [on CCSS assessments] is the verbs, which live in the land of performance assessment. That's why project-based learning has an advantage over traditional instruction – it's based on verbs." In projects, students create, decide, produce, solve, inquire, propose, justify, plan, analyze, evaluate, synthesize and present.

It's easy to see how the performance tasks being planned for the CCSS tests are well-aligned with PBL practices. Look how much the sample eighth grade performance task discussed in Part 1 of this post reflects BIE's 8 Essential Elements of PBL:

Significant Content

Claim 4 by Smarter Balanced asks students to research, inquire, and "analyze, integrate and present information" -- hard to argue with the importance of that. Whether it's in college, on the job or at home, everyone needs to know how to function well in today's information-rich society.

21st Century Competencies

Students must use critical thinking and problem-solving skills, communicate in writing for a specific purpose, and perhaps be creative and innovative in their approach to the task. The only one of the 4C's this lacks is collaboration -- but trying to measure that would really blow the minds of traditional test makers!

In-Depth Inquiry

Although the task is not extended over the typical length of time of a project, and does not include student-generated questions, it does involve the investigation of an issue through close reading of several diverse texts. That qualifies as inquiry.

Driving Question

It's not stated explicitly, but the DQ is clear to me: "Should the library spend its money on more books or more computers?"

Need to Know

The scenario set up in the performance task creates an authentic need to know more about young people's use of the Internet, their reading habits, and the pros and cons of the issue -- not to mention how to write an effective argumentative essay. And, as many of you PBL practitioners could tell, that 30-minute "Introductory Classroom Activity" sure sounds (almost) like an Entry Event – there's an engaging activity, a connection to the real world, a challenge and a preview of what the task is.

Voice and Choice

Student test takers decide for themselves which side to argue when writing their essay, and which evidence to draw from which resources.

Critique and Revision

OK, there isn't much time for this in a couple of hours in a test-taking situation -- but I hope students have time to review and edit their first drafts!

Public Audience

While it's not an actual presentation of their work to a real person, students are asked to write their argumentative essay to an imagined authentic audience -- the library staff and the decision makers.

What PBL Teachers Can Do to Prepare Students

Generally speaking, PBL teachers should "stay the course," advises Justin. "We're preparing our students well because PBL is about performance assessment." In the world of performance assessment, two of the key concepts relevant for PBL teachers are that a test must result in a product or performance, and the product or performance has to match the learning target. "The first one is easy for PBL teachers to get their heads around," Justin says. But the second one needs careful attention. "The verb matters; what is the thinking skill this is really getting at?"

To illustrate the point that teachers need to design project tasks which truly measure what a standard is asking for, Justin offers this example:

If you ask people if a job interview is a good performance assessment, they might say, "Sure, you're in the hot seat, you have to think on your feet!" But what skill is a job interview really measuring? You'd have to make a guess about how someone might actually be able to do a certain thing on the job. It's really only measuring the statement, "I am good at job interviews."

This means that PBL teachers need to provide scaffolding during a project to support students in learning how to think in the specific ways the Common Core demands. As BIE National Faculty member Andrew Miller puts it, "In a project, the performance tasks we design better have 'analyze' if the CCSS says 'analyze' -- we can't oversimplify when we look at a standard."

When PBL teachers design and conduct projects, we need to be sure that our projects are rooted in the verbs targeted in CCSS-specific skills, such as close reading of text and writing in response to text. Justin admits:

As a PBL teacher, sometimes I had other goals -- such as social studies content and the 4C's -- but looking back, I could have built more close reading and writing into my projects. Another of the key verbs is "research." Sometimes in PBL, teachers do the research for students: we find resources, select the sources . . . it's expedient, it's all we have time for, but we need to ask, can I build in simultaneous outcomes for research skills?

Andrew points out:

We’re all in this together. PBL teachers of all subjects have to know what "complex text" is. They need to scaffold close reading techniques and include text-dependent questions and evidence-based writing tasks seamlessly into their projects.

A Tailwind for PBL

Justin concludes:

A simple way I've often explained project-based learning to non-educator friends is "the act of creation over time." Having our students engaged in that kind of work will help prepare them for these new tests. Now we're going to see, in standardized testing environments, students having to sit with some dissonance -- there are these different texts, some of them don't make sense or are contradictory . . . Or on the math test, there's a challenging problem-based scenario. If we've been having our students do this in a PBL environment, they're going to approach this kind of task with more confidence than students who haven't been exposed to this at all.
We in the PBL world are really getting a lot of validation in the last few years, in terms of the direction Common Core has said we need to go, and the new burning interest in performance assessment in the larger field. We've had faith in this pedagogy through, sometimes, headwinds, and now we've got a bit of a tailwind!

John Larmer

Editor in Chief at the Buck Institute for Education
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