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PBL and Standardized Tests? It Can Work!

Andrew Miller

Instructional Coach at Shanghai American School
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Three girls and two boys working together around a small robot

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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Chris Fancher's picture
Chris Fancher
Design and PBL facilitator.

As you said, there are key objectives and standards on every test. That could be a 6 week benchmark or an end of year state standardized test. Those are the targets you aim for during your projects. And PBL teachers will be spiraling in objectives seen earlier in the year throughout the rest of their projects. Don't look at standardized tests as obstacles. Instead, look at them as focal points in your planning for projects.

John Bennett's picture
John Bennett
Emeritus Faculty in the School of Engineering / University of Connecticut

The commentary and the comment are right on target! The only complication would be misalignment of standards and standardized test topics. Even governments wouldn't be that cruel, would they? Assuming the answer is "no" to that question, the time lost is in administering the standardized tests (SS - hmmm ...). And I predict better scores with use of PBL.

Teriah White's picture
Teriah White
Sixth grade Language Arts/Reading teacher from OH via Stone Mountain, GA

I totally appreciate your insights on how to effectively incorporate PBL into Standardized testing. Often times we are so inundated with pacing guides, and benchmarks, it's just less stressful to teach the standards in a way that will yield the achievement gains school districts want. However, what I have found in my own teaching using this method, is an ability to experience great achievement gains with my below grade-level students, but not enough rigor for my students at or above grade-level, and this is totally disheartening! This summer will be spent incorporating more PBL opportunities that are student-centered, and student-directed, which will require students to use the higher-order thinking to contruct their own meanings. It's so simple to get students to buy-in when it's meaningful to them, and when they think they're running things. Thanks for this gem!

Chad Powers's picture

Many computer-based standardized Science tests are beginning to use mini-projects embedded into the questions. Students have to use the results of an "experiment" to think critically and answer questions. In my mind, this strengthens the relationship between PBL and preparation for the standardized tests. In addition, why wouldn't you utilize a tool which is much more likely to engage students than a worksheet or quiz??

Ellen's picture

My school just went 1-1 with technology for the impending PARCC test. I like the idea of power standards. What a great way to incorporate PBL into the classroom by focusing on the most important standards. Since I changed my teaching style to standards based, I think PBL would be a great addition to my practice. I think it's an interesting concept to incorporate test questions into the PBL especially since the PARCC is an online assessment. If I can infuse the necessary technology with the power standards I believe my students will truly excel.

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