George Lucas Educational Foundation
PBL Assessment

Standards-Based Assessment in PBL

Incorporating standards-based grading into project-based learning is a challenge, but these four practices will help you get started.

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If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my 10-year teaching career, it’s that designing valid and reliable assessments in a project-based learning classroom is a time-consuming process—at least it is for me. Like most teachers, I want to engage my students in dynamic, real-world learning experiences that require authentic knowledge application. Unfortunately, I discovered quickly that aligning the type of learning experiences I desired with the standards-based grading practices required by my district required significant changes in my practice.

Over time, I researched best practices in both standards-based assessment and project-based learning, and worked to incorporate them in my classroom. Here are some of the practices I’ve come to utilize.

Preparing for Standards-Based Grading

Practice 1: Create learning scales from the standards. I’m fortunate to work in a district that provides teachers a significant amount of instructional freedom. For example, my district tasked all our professional learning communities (PLCs) with using our judgement to create a condensed list of content area standards that we felt were most critical to summatively assess and report to parents.

Once we completed this list, our PLCs created Level 1.0–4.0 learning scales (with Level 3.0 being the grade-level standard) that delineated the knowledge required of each student at each level on the learning scale. 

For example, on my own learning scales, students need to be able to define specific vocabulary terms located in the standard itself to be considered at Level 2.0, whereas specific knowledge application (as shown in the standard) is required at Level 3.0.

Practice 2: Design leveled assessments from those learning scales. Standards-based grading proved a significant shift for me, in that I needed students to be able identify their location on the learning scale as shown by assessment data. To accomplish this, I designed summative assessments with progressively more difficult questions that aligned with my learning scale. 

For example, on my World War I assessment, students are required to define mutual defense alliances at Level 2.0, whereas explaining how mutual defense alliances helped contribute to the start of World War I is considered a Level 3.0.

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Combining Standards-Based Grading with PBL

Practice 1: Map the learning scales and assessments to projects. At the beginning of the school year, I provided copies of all 13 of my Level 1.0 to 4.0 learning scales to each of my classes and asked students to read the scales and sort them into piles based on what they perceived to be the common themes. I compiled each class’s findings into a single document in which I looked for commonalities.

Next, I showed students my master list, and we ended up giving each of the common groupings a thematic name: Environment, Civil Rights, Basic Needs, and Conflict. These groupings then became my curriculum map for the year, and I used them to develop projects. The intent of this was to give students a voice in the order in which we studied historical topics, by looking at history thematically instead of chronologically.

Practice 2: Separate individual assessments from group grades. In my first few years of incorporating PBL in a traditional grading system, I regularly lumped together individual assessments with a group project grade. I assumed that if students were aware that their actions could impact the achievement of others, they’d be motivated to achieve for fear of letting others down. This held true for some student teams but not others, which caused significant group issues.

To alleviate this, I began separating individual assessment scores from group products. To assess students individually, I decided to administer an official biweekly single-standard assessment based on a critical learning standard previously identified by my PLC. I could then use data from formative and summative assessments to plan lessons for small groups, during which other students engaged in project work. Only the scores from the summative assessments are reported to parents.

For the group portion, I have made projects simply a “go/no go” in the gradebook. In other words, students are required to do the project and present it to an outside audience, but it doesn’t count for or against their grade.

If the students don’t have their project completed when it’s due, I require them to present whatever they have done, no matter the level of completion. Feedback from the audience, as well as peer evaluation data, is posted in the gradebook in lieu of a formal grade. If the project is not completed at all, I simply don’t report the individuals’ grades at the end of the quarter until it is finished.

Because of all this, 100 percent of the reported grade is based on individual achievement on our critical learning targets, which, when combined with the audience and peer feedback, paints a detailed picture of student achievement in multiple aspects.

In summary, incorporating standards-based grading into my project-based learning classroom has been a challenge, but has proven worth it. I now prescribe a more personalized set of lessons to individual students, while simultaneously getting all students to engage with the outside world.