Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Challenge of Assessing Project-Based Learning

Boss, S. (2012). The Challenge of Assessing Project-Based Learning. District Administration, 48(9), 46-50,

As school systems look to the future of standardized testing and instruction, project-based learning (PBL) is considered the driver of change, according to this article. Suzie Boss, the author, describes models of projects that increased rigor and relevancy of instruction, as well as demonstrated elements of deeper learning and authentic assessments.

For their ambitious project, called America at War, students didn’t just study history. They became historians. Their project offers compelling evidence of what students can accomplish through project-based learning (PBL), an instructional approach that emphasizes authentic asessment.” (Boss, 47)
Rody Boonchouy, principal of Da Vinci Charter Academy said,“Their preexisting beliefs and opinions were challenged through exploration of conflicts and interactions with veterans who were there.” (Boss, 47)

Boss ties historic project based learning education and the resurgence of the project approach by identifying schools who focus on PBL to include: New Tech schools, High Tech High, and Expeditionary Learning.

Boss makes comparisons between traditional approaches of instruction and assessment with performance-based assessments found in PBL models in order to explain the anxiety that surrounds new state standardized testing. As tension rises and a reluctance to change to performance-based assessments, Boss makes the correlation that “Administrators have spent a decade getting in front of their organizations, emphasizing data and meeting targets... with laser-like focus on standardized test results.” (Boss, 49) As the focus on assessment is changing, administrators and teachers are left wondering what is coming and what they should focus on.

Numerous professional development initiatives have begun in order to bridge the divide between traditional practice and PBL. The Buck Institute for Education (BIE) provides a three-day workshop called, PBL 101. Groups of teachers from New Tech schools have started research on performance-based assessment. The Hewlett Foundation’s Deeper Learning initiative is developing a Web-based platform that will allow teachers from all over the country to upload student work to assess and calibrate. The Chesterfield County (Va.) Public School District has created a strategic plan created by educators, students, parents, business leaders and professionals to help roll out their plan of implementing PBL throughout their entire system by 2015.

Finally, Boss considers the cost and timeline for shifting to project based instruction and assessment.  She indicates that professional development is now the focus. Teachers will need to learn how to create rubrics that will be able to identify high-quality project work. $60,000 was the approximate price to send 20-plus teachers to spend four days to design curriculum and to become the “experts” for their fellow teachers. For small districts, the price to create “experts” is a challenge.

There is a level of anxiety that is present as school districts transition from traditional practices to project-based approaches based on the changing of statewide standardized testing. In an environment where teachers seek teacher guides, scope and sequence charts, and where administrators seek benchmark assessments and emphasize on data, moving to a project based model feels like going against the grain.  Teachers’ comfort levels are pushed to limits as they are challenged to create their own curriculum, tie it to common core standards, then create authentic learning opportunities and authentic assessments. Creating rubrics that focus on performance, critical thinking, collaboration and content knowledge rather than filling in a bubbled exam is a daunting task.

These ideas and elements that are found in PBL create a level of deeper learning that prepares students for college and beyond, but I’m curious to know how these models of PBL work in a primary grade classroom; Kindergarten through Second grade. Looking through the lens of Primary Grade Teacher, I often ask; What is the balance between project work and teaching the fundamentals of reading, writing and mathematics? In my experience as a first grade teacher and in my conversations with colleagues, the dialogue often revolves around the idea that maybe grades kindergarten and first grade, specifically, should be skills-based driven with elements of projects interwoven. Over the past two years, we have focused on the project-based approach and have found gaps in foundational skills as students prepare to move into the next grade level.  As professional educators, we quickly identify these gaps and scaffold our instruction to bring our students to “grade level” standards. This is assuming that we are using traditional assessments to measure grade level standards versus student-generated rubrics. But, is there truly any other way to assess basic number sense, phonemes, letter recognition, blended sounds, and word families?  These skill sets set the foundation for strong reading, writing and mathematical habits. These foundations are paramount to the later success of all students, well before the notion of college has entered their minds.

Is project based learning an excuse to allow for gaps in education to be thrusted upon their next teacher? At what point will the students get it? Is there research that shows that they will eventually get it, once we feel that our students are matured enough to better grasp the concepts, or will the gaps remain?  A man once told me that there has been actual research that shows that if a student hasn’t become proficient in reading by the 3rd grade there is direct correlation with the number of beds a federal penitentiary system will need to be prepared to purchase. I took his notion with a grain of salt as he couldn’t reference where he got his information, but that begs to be questioned. Is this a valid thought or is this just some scare tactic to make teachers more accountable to ensuring student are proficient readers by the 3rd grade?

I do agree with the introduction and exposure to project-based instruction in these primary grades. I feel that it sets up students for success as they get into more rigorous projects in the upper grades; just as frontloading difficult vocabulary for second language students supports them in their reading, writing and communication.

Text Sources:
Research emphasizes that projects need to be the “spine” of the curriculum rather than additions.

PBL 101, Buck Institute for Education (Samples of formative and summative tools)


Kim Tsai said...

"Teachers will need to learn how to create rubrics that will be able to identify high-quality project work."

I agree with this quote as we need to find what are the best practices in project-based learning. I wonder how we can establish best practices at HTe? What are the best ways to balance teaching principle skills at the elementary with projects?

Awesome article Daniel!

Paul North said...

Thanks for positing such a reflective entry, Daniel, and for asking the tough questions. (Remember to add tags, as we don't want your hard work to be lost in the ether!) I am also cognizant of the need for strong skills-based education in the primary grades and curious about its intersection with project-based learning. I wonder if PBL-driven rubrics can somehow incorporate mastery of basic knowledge and skills or if this goes against the whole point . . . ?

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