George Lucas Educational Foundation

PBL and Standardized Tests? It Can Work!

There’s a tension between project-based learning and standardized testing prep, but also a wide swath of common ground.

June 1, 2012 Updated September 10, 2018

Whether through yearly course assessments, six-week benchmark exams, or state-level competency tests, teachers and students are inundated with testing. Because of the way that testing permeates education culture, I often hear pushback from teachers about implementing project-based learning (PBL). The question I often hear is: “How does PBL work with standardized tests?”

Here are some tips and responses related to this question.

Research Shows Positive Results

PBL and success on standardized tests are not mutually exclusive. Research has shown that students do as well or better on these high-stakes assessments when PBL is the method of instruction, in addition to its many other benefits.

Lucas Education Research has done a lot of work investigating AP course design through PBL projects, and has examples of how to structure an AP course with PBL. Research through the Knowledge in Action project shows that looping—revisiting key concepts—and creating engagement with PBL allows for deeper learning to occur.

These positive results show that PBL can work with high-stakes courses and exams that cover a breadth of knowledge.

Target What Matters Most

Teachers should examine their exams to uncover the big ideas and points that are often assessed, and then make sure PBL projects target those standards or learning outcomes.

If you know that a specific book or genre is targeted in the AP English Literature exam, use a 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, use PBL to ensure that students walk away not only knowing linear equations inside and out but being able to think critically about them and to make relevant connections. If something isn’t priority learning, address it through a different method.

Some of us have to deal with testing more frequently than others. Work within the structures you have if you want to find an opportune time for a deep dive into a PBL project.

“I’ll wait till after testing season” is a frequently used excuse, and I know where it comes from: the pressure. But waiting till after testing season defeats 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”—I’m saying that if you truly want to leverage PBL and capitalize on its strengths, you need to use it to teach content that will be on the test. PBL is about learning that sticks, which is exactly what students need when they’re facing high-stakes tests.

Embed Test Stems and Questions in the PBL Project

Standardized test preparation need not go out the window when you’re doing PBL—it can be embedded effectively into the PBL itself. When you create PBL projects, you should look at related test questions and either use them in the project or use the stems to create new ones.

For example, I might draw from a sample exam to create reading standard stems for a particular fiction or nonfiction text we’re reading. Although they’re not an exciting form of assessment, such stems can serve as excellent formative assessments for student learning. They can also let students experience aspects of the test, and then the test won’t be scary or seem unfamiliar when they come to it.

Are We Asking the Wrong Question?

In focusing of the issue of PBL and standardized tests, we may be passing over some important questions. Why are standardized assessments the key focus of determining student success? Are we measuring and assessing what really matters?

As I read a recent article entitled “Project-Based Learning and Standardized Tests Don’t Mix,” I realized that policy makers might be operating under the assumption that standardized tests are the best way to measure student learning. What if we instead had assessments that mattered, such as performance tasks that measured deep learning and the ability to apply learning in new contexts?

In Leading Modern Learning, Jay McTighe and Greg Curwin articulate the need for such assessment systems. These systems would include projects and performance tasks called cornerstone tasks that aligned to long-term “transfer goals” both within and across disciplines. Transfer goals relate to the ability to apply lessons in new situations (like the ability to apply knowledge of history to a contemporary context, for example).

Many districts and schools have embarked on a journey to create these meaningful, deep assessments—take a look at DC Public Schools, for example. Instead of getting stuck trying to reconcile competing forces, I see an opportunity to re-evaluate how we assess student learning at the systemic level.

While there’s still much to learn about PBL’s impact on standardized tests, there are many promising practices and research studies that show they can live together. We have to be mindful and intentional when we implement PBL in our classes to ensure success. However, we also know that success beyond test results is why we teach.

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