How Project-Based Learning Can Support Standardized Testing

Today, I’m ready to celebrate! It is Friday and the standardized testing season, for my fourth grade daughter, is officially over. A few weeks ago, we finished the math, reading, and writing portions of the PSSAs (Pennsylvania System of School Assessment). Now, science is behind us and I won’t have to hear about the PSSAs again until next spring.

I’ve never been a big fan of standardized tests, but I can’t say I ever let them bother me. As a student, I vividly recall sitting in the cafeteria, leaving one empty seat on either side, and pouring over the questions with a high level of concentration. As a social studies teacher, I was relieved I never had a specific state test focused on my content. However, I remember the faculty meeting where we were told that we were all becoming math and ELA teachers, as one of our sub-groups of students didn’t meet AYP. I also remember anxiously awaiting the results of my AP students’ exam grades after my first year of teaching AP Government. However, in each instance, I never let those standardized tests change my classroom practices. Unfortunately, I see the quite the opposite in many classrooms today.

During the first round of testing, earlier this month, my daughter was wrought with anxiety. “Mommy, I have to eat a good breakfast. Mommy, I have to be in bed early. Mommy, these tests aren’t fair to our teachers. The tests ask things we haven’t covered yet.” All of the comments were projections of what was being said in the classroom. All of the comments worried me, both as a mother and as an educator. This same vein of comments continued this week. “Mommy, I’m sure you haven’t had any Remind 101 texts lately, because ‘Mrs. L.’ has been too preoccupied with the science PSSAs! We’ve been busy prepping for the tests, because they ask information we haven’t covered yet.”

While I certainly don’t agree with anxiety producing comments, what worries me the most is the continued reference to the “material we haven’t covered yet.” For if we are merely “covering” information in our classes, we aren’t ensuring our students have actually thought critically about the content, nor have we allowed our students to engage in deep inquiry. Covering material is an approach used by teachers to convince themselves they’ve acted in response the unfair system of standardized testing. In states that use standardized testing as a portion of the teacher assessment process, covering material is also used by teachers as an attempt to ensure their students remember the content for the short-term in order to merely pass the test. In both cases, the standardized test is used as an excuse to perpetuate the “coverage of content” mentality that permeates education today.

It is time that we quit using standardized tests as an excuse to merely cover content. While, I don’t see standardized tests going by the wayside any time in the near future, I do see shifts in many of the standardized tests that are happening. The College Board has, for the last few years, been rewriting its AP curriculum and their approach to testing. There has been a narrowing of the focus on the memorization of facts and that focus has shifted to the application of content. You can see a transition of these tests questions, as shared by Ken Key of EdLeader21, here.  The Smarter Balanced Performance Tasks that test the Common Core State Standards also move away from the focus of memorization of content. Check out some of their examples here.

Moving one’s teaching practice to include more authentic, relevant, and appropriately complex learning experiences promotes a focus on critical thinking. True project-based learning advocates for deep inquiry into the content, rather than mere coverage of that content. Additionally, an authentic and relevant learning experience empowers students to immerse themselves in the content and apply that content to a community or career connection. The content becomes meaningful to the student and moves them beyond the simple memorization of that content. Content that is meaningful and is applied in an authentic and relevant learning experience is content that is not easily forgotten. It is content that can now be applied in a new context.

As the end of the school year is upon us, let’s make a concerted effort to focus less on the coverage of content and more on the meaningful process of inquiry and deep, critical thinking. After all, with the standardized testing season behind us, there shouldn’t be a need to simply cover the content.

*** A few weeks ago, I wrote a guest post for my good friend and colleague, Mike Gorman (@mjgormans). In it, I also referenced the standardized testing phenomena and ways to overcome it. You can read that post here.


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