Chuck the Tests- Project Based Learning is Better

We have effective, research based models for assessing student learning that do not rely on standardized testing. So why aren’t we using them?

A friend of mine recently got hired at one of the city’s performance assessment consortium schools. What is unique about these schools is that the students only take 1 test- yes that’s right, just 1 standardized test in four years of high school. So, instead of wasting valuable time on tests and test prep, portfolios of authentic student projects are used to assess learning and determine eligibility for graduation.

Also unique about these schools- Despite a population comprised of high numbers of English language learners and low-income families, these schools have far higher graduation rates than traditional high schools and an 91% college attendance rate.

How do they do it?

Teacher autonomy and “in depth” project based learning. That’s how.

I met a teacher from Brooklyn International High School at a workshop recently and wistfully listened as she described the year long  history and ecology project about water pollution she had designed with her students.  Meanwhile, in depth, interdisciplinary projects with real life relevance are few and far between in my elementary school because testing and data take priority over everything else.

Which begs the question: why can’t we have portfolio assessed middle and elementary schools too? Why can’t elementary schools apply for the same waiver these schools receive and use performance based assessment instead of torturous tests?  Especially when excellent progressive schools like Central Park East are under threat, why not use these successful alternative high schools as a model and give all schools the opportunity to choose project based learning over testing?

We know skipping standardized tests in favor of deeper learning works with our neediest high school students. And we know testing is far more cumbersome and developmentally inappropriate for young children than it is for teens. So there is no reason not to bring this successful model down to our youngest students.

If we really want to offer parents “school choice” we need elementary, middle and high schools that go beyond data factories. Alternatives like portfolios, project based learning and performance assessment should be an option for children of all ages- not just high school students.

Project based learning; Making science and social studies count

Amid the whirlwind that is education reform, many educators lose sight of the parts of the day that make school meaningful and fun- art, music, P.E. , social studies, and science. These are the projects, games and studies that are getting pushed more and more to the margins of the school day because of high-stakes testing in ELA and Math. Even at my school, with an administration that is pushing project based learning, the third grade skims the science and social studies content, because the bulk of the day is dedicated toward teaching toward the tests.  At the same time, since there aren’t standardized tests in these these subjects yet, there is a tiny bit more freedom for both teachers and students. In that vein, for this post I thought I would take a break from criticism and share something positive- something that can happen when teachers are allowed to ditch the script and get creative.

We teach science and social studies because we want kids to learn about themselves, their natural, cultural and physical environment and understand basic features and processes that are a part or their lives. Perhaps more important, we want them to develop habits of inquiry, problem solving, discovery, and collaboration. It’s not whether they remember who built which landmark in NYC, but whether they know how to pose questions to clarify and challenge, how to plan and work with peers, to listen, respond, critique, investigate and how to solve problems by testing out multiple possibilities. Yes we do want them to acquire knowledge- but remembering that they will only hold on to what they can relate to and what they will continue to use: if we want them to remember the 6 plant parts, we need to instill a love of plants and gardening in them through tangible experiences so that the knowledge remains relevant. If we want them to remember structures of government- we have to give them a sense that they are powerful and have a responsibility to vote in elections, that their lives are influenced by unseen forces. If we want them to remember details about New Amsterdam; we have to instill a love of history and a love of their city- so that they come back to it again and again as they grow.

In my classroom, against the odds, we are engaged in a purposeful, interdisciplinary science and social studies project. Although I’ve always been a project lover, this year was my first introduction to project based learning. In project based learning, long term projects stem from real-world problems, needs, or questions. Many progressive schools engage in amazing interdisciplinary thematic units and projects: Brooklyn bridge studies, Hudson river, the Lenape. These units include trips, art, writing, collaborative work, model making. Project based learning does all that but with a real life purpose, whether it is creating signage for a museum exhibit, re-purposing an empty lot or figuring out the best way to get from here to there.

My co-teacher and I were so excited about this idea and we quickly found our issue. We decided that we should try to figure out the best way to protect New York city from storms and flooding, so we mapped out a loose progression for our project, found a friend from Red-Hook to help us launch and got started. In order to address this problem, our class decided we needed to learn about NYC geography and neighborhoods, flooding, storms, buildings, landforms,and coastal ecosystems. Here’s what it looks like at the moment- during writing, the kids are researching topics of their choice to write information books about low-elevation neighborhoods in the city. in science, we are learning about landforms, weathering and coastal erosion. In social studies, we are visiting neighborhoods around the city and will begin constructing a map of NYC that highlights elevation and the neighborhoods we’re studying. We’re not covering material, we’re not checking bullet points off a list. We don’t know exactly where the project will head, which solution we will settle on or how we will present our findings. We’re not transmitting information.  What we are doing is collaborating, asking questions, making plans, solving problems- in short we’re offering our students an experience that will stick with them whether they remember the facts they learn along the way or not. We’re empowering children by letting their interests and ideas guide the project, and by allowing them to tackle a problem in the real world- a problem they can all understand and relate to. And we’re having a blast.

The kids meanwhile, are all about it. They bring in books from home about neighborhoods and hurricanes. They casually use the word elevation or erosion as they make connections to our project throughout the day. And all the kids are into it- from the four students reading at a third grade level to the ones who are just beginning to read at a kindergarten level.  The quiet kids who never raise their hands, some of whom have pretty sever learning disabilities, are suddenly jumping out of their seats wanting to share their observations and original thoughts. My over-energetic boys are sitting still and examining maps of NYC and hurricane footage. And then of course- the real reason I love social studies- our students are learning a lot about working together. Each afternoon we devote to our project, they practice taking turns, listening to each other, making a plan before diving in, making sure that everyone has a role to play, respecting each others ideas and abilities. My co-teacher and I are learning along the way as well, thinking about how to better plan our next project, how to make sure all the loose ends come together.  I’m amazed by the growth we’ve seen already, and can’t keep from dreaming up projects for the rest of the year.

How did this happen? Well, first, we hid all our science and social studies textbooks in the back of our closet. The thought of using textbooks in either of those subjects appalls me. We also used the scope and sequence as a starting point rather than a bible. We quietly compressed much of  the first social studies unit- rules, rights and responsibilities, ( a developmentally inappropriate unit on government) and thus were able to launch our project in early October.

This kind of learning should be happening daily. I know this makes me sound a little doomsday-ish- but I truly believe that in the age of climate change, drone warfare, stem cells, smart phones, and decreasing bio-diversity among other countless scientific phenomenon that impact our lives, kids should be engaging with science materials and concepts daily. Not to mention that kids love it- nothing is more developmentally appropriate in early childhood than digging in the dirt, building a shelter, planting veggies or learning about animals- science gets kids outside, boosts happiness and cements their connection to the natural world, all while fostering habits of inquiry and wonder. Likewise, in an age of societal instability and diversity, social studies, with an emphasis on collaborative problem solving, community building inside and outside of school, critical thinking and social justice should be woven into each school day and each discipline. This is the kind of learning that helps us fully become ourselves, that helps us find meaning and even helps us survive whatever life throws at us. This is the kind of learning that does more than prepare children for the future- it fully engages them in the present.

On that note, some Dewey before I go:  “We always live at the time we live and not at some other time, and only by extracting at each present time the full meaning of each present experience are we prepared for doing the same thing in the future.”