Squeeze of the Test

We offered our first professional development this week to local teachers on PBL (project based learning). Since we are a lab school at the county level it was determined from the planning stages of our school to offer PD to the local districts.

One of my colleagues and I ran the PD session and I was struck by a couple of things. The teachers who attended did not ask very many basic questions about what PBL is or why it is a good pedagogical choice. Many of them had already used it in their classrooms in at least one project and were looking to further develop their understanding and practice of it. They did not need to be convinced to try PBL. In their districts they were the early adopters. They did ask questions about student motivation, managing the projects and groups, and grading.

The questions that hit me the most were questions about testing and assessment. They wanted to know how we assess; how we measure student growth (i.e. what standardized tests do we use and how often); were we concerned about how our students will do on the 11th grade state test (you know the BIG one).

Lifted from Trendblend

These teachers were obsessed with testing and assessment. But to be clear these questions were not asked in a skeptical or judgmental way. They were asking these questions because that is the climate that they live in back in their home districts. It was very clear to me that testing was very emphasized in their schools and although they wanted to shift to student-centered PBL they were concerned about how their students would do on tests. They were looking to be assured that if they went all in with a PBL classroom that their students would perform better on standardized tests. To me, test results are not a very important part of PBL at all. I believe in PBL because I think it encourages a better way to learn and develops important life skills such as collaboration and communication that won’t be on any test.

Even though I taught in one of these districts two years ago, I have forgotten how dominate the testing culture is in most schools today squeezing out everything else. I am truly blessed to be free from the fear of these tests. My students will take the tests and I sometimes worry about how they will do a little bit, but I do not teach in a climate that obsesses about them non-stop and makes them a key factor in every decision.

Other PBL teachers, how do you encourage teachers who want to shift to PBL but feel pressured by a test obsession culture?

7 thoughts on “Squeeze of the Test

  1. Philip Cummings

    Mike, this is an interesting, but not surprising, observation. I, too, am not in a culture dominated by test obsession, but I sympathize with teachers who are. When a teacher’s livelihood and ability to take care of those he loves are at-risk due to value-added measure and high-stakes pressures, it is understandable that one would fear negative test outcomes and want to do anything possible to avoid bad scores. I’m impressed that those in attendance have already explored (and taken) the risk of trying something new. I think periodic benchmark assessments during PBL–just to make sure students are getting what they need–might help. I think that’s what they do at SLA. I understand their fears. I get it. If only the pendulum would start swing back the other way…

  2. Geoff

    I’m really glad you don’t spend your days worrying about The Test. I think it’s a false choice: that you cannot do an adept PBL facilitator and see decent test results. I actually think good PBL is particularly *good* at fostering test score gains – yes, even standardized, multiple choice tests.

    We saw gains at our school (modest ones, to be sure) for a few reasons. One reason is that PBL can foster literacy and reading for understanding. When a student is pulling apart an Entry Document and searching for Knows/Need-to-knows they are practicing a similar skill that will help them be successful on a particular test question. Another reason is that students are more comfortable with struggling through a problem without immediately giving up. Good PBL fosters a disposition of persistence. In my traditional classroom, students often gave up on a test question if they didn’t immediately understand the question.

    It’s probably not a popular opinion: that you don’t need to have one or the other one or the other – good PBL or gains on gross multiple choice tests – but in my experience I haven’t seen it as necessarily contradictory.

    — Geoff

    1. concretekax

      I have heard similar statements, but I felt like these teachers were asking for “proof.” We are too new of school to have any real data on this. What you are saying makes sense and I tend to agree with it but did not feel comfortable mentioning it without some actual numbers to back it up.

  3. Bill Strickland

    While I can understand and appreciate your perspective of the participant’s question re: testing, I had a different impression of the real focus of the focus of the “test question” asked during the PD session. Most teachers (in public schools) have to “show progress” since the beginning of their course. As best I remember the question was basically, “What evidence of learning have you documented at KIH?” Like you I WAS surprised at the attention paid to the MME by the teachers in the room, though perhaps that’s because as a social studies teacher I value the MME and its importance less than teachers of other subjects. The impression I had of the question and your answer was that you weren’t particularly focused or worried about any state standardized test. (which is good!) My impression wasn’t so much that other teachers were “obsessed” with testing so much as the fact that there’s a “gap” between the fact that they/we are subject to a test and you aren’t. (or at least aren’t YET. That might change once KIH’s students are juniors and take the MME) You even acknowledged much later in the day that your principal IS concerned with students’ performance, but I suspect that’s her concern in pre-empting any criticism of KIH & PBL. As the classroom teacher/facilitator you have the personal knowledge that your students ARE learning, and learning greatly. The teachers were “just” asking for any objective, quantitative evidence of learning KIH had so far collected. Whether that counts as “obsession” is at least partly influenced by one’s current milieu.

  4. concretekax


    The term “obsession” is definitely a matter of perspective, but I think that is my main point. I have been in that kind of school and remember the unhealthy, IMO, focus on testing and standardization. I now have been separated, for the most part, from that culture so it made a large impression on me.

    It makes me sad.

  5. dperkins

    Problem or Project based? Big difference but I’m unclear about which you’re writing about…sounds more like project based from your descriptors.

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