Test Taking

A common concern we hear from educators as they begin to make the transition to Project Based Learning is: “What about the test?” While most educators see the power PBL holds for student learning and engagement, they (and their students) also face the very real pressures of high-stakes standardized tests– and they fear that a change in instructional practice might put their scores at risk. So how do we give students high-quality, authentic learning experiences while also ensuring that they are well-prepared for traditional assessments? Here are some strategies– and reflective questions for practitioners– to help elevate learning, engagement, and scores for all students:

Strategy #1: Align projects to high-leverage standards.

Projects should be designed to teach, apply, and assess significant content and skills. In many states, these critical content and skills are identified as “power standards,” and are also the standards that carry the most weight on high-stakes tests. Teachers begin the project planning process by identifying focus learning goals that are important to student learning and that are deserving of the time a project takes, then ensuring that the project’s Driving Question, major products, and learning experiences are all tightly aligned to those learning goals. When done well, this alignment pays off: Gold Standard PBL creates a “why” for students that engages them actively in learning the target content and skills, and that helps them retain and understand these critical content and skills. 

Reflective questions to support this strategy:
  • How can I select "power standards" for the grade/level content areas I teach that are "meaty" enough to warrant the time we will spend on a project designed to teach and assess them?
  • What is the depth of knowledge level at which students are expected to demonstrate their mastery of these standards on high-stakes assessments? What are the implications for the learning goals I should derive from these standards?
  • How might these standards be brought to life in a project?
  • How will I ensure strong alignment to the identified learning goals throughout project implementation? 
Strategy #2: Use frequent standards-aligned formative assessment to propel learning throughout a project.

Formative assessment in PBL helps teachers and students monitor learning and identify the appropriate next steps in the project. Formative assessments should be varied, frequent, and aligned to the project’s learning goals. While PBL includes an emphasis on learner-driven formative assessments such as self-reflection and peer feedback, teachers can and should embed traditional assessments (such as quizzes and writing tasks, including those from provided curriculum materials) into projects as needed. PBL teachers use the data from these assessments to guide feedback and next steps (including differentiation and reteaching within a project), in service of ensuring that all students master the significant content and skills that are the focus of the project.

Reflective questions to support this strategy:

  • How will I gather and analyze evidence of individual student growth related to each learning goal throughout the project?
  • Have I planned for differentiated ways to gather data on student learning?
  • What is my plan for intervention/reteaching/additional scaffolding if I find evidence that students are struggling with a particular learning goal?
Strategy #3: Incorporate occasional lessons and assessments that reflect the task and question types students will see on tests– but give them a PBL spin!

One way to build student comfort with standardized testing is to embed occasional test-like task types within a project, but to leverage the elements of PBL and the content of the project to make them engaging and meaningful for students. This might look like the following:

  • In a project on animal adaptations, students create a class anchor chart of strategies for reading informational text. They work in collaborative teams to read and discuss articles about different adaptations and answer multiple choice questions about them (structured like the questions that will appear on their end-of-year state test). Students individually reflect on how they got to the correct answer and what strategies they used, so they can then replicate those strategies on the high stakes exam. They then engage in a jigsaw activity to teach other teams about their focus adaptation. 
  • As a scaffold toward their public presentations to government officials about the tension between privacy and security in internet policy, students write timed “constructed response” essays that mirror the written portion of a standardized test, then engage in a peer critique protocol (guided by criteria drawn from the testing rubric) to refine the communication and organization of their ideas and arguments.
  • As a warm-up during each day of a mathematics project on financial planning and exponential growth and decay, student pairs work on whiteboards to solve test-like practice problems in which they apply the mathematics concepts from the project to a range of financial scenarios.
Reflective questions to support this strategy:
  • What knowledge/skills and strategies do students need to learn in order to successfully answer the questions on the standardized test? How can I model and provide feedback around the targeted knowledge/skills and strategies throughout the project?
  • What types of questions and tasks will students encounter on their standardized tests? Which of these questions or task types might be unfamiliar or intimidating to students? How can I incorporate these questions or tasks into the project in ways that connect to the project content or product?
  • How can I leverage aspects of PBL (such as sustained inquiry, collaboration, transparency around the criteria for quality work, or peer critique) to build students’ comfort with these questions or tasks?
Strategy #4: Use reflective processes to support transfer.

Reflection is an Essential Element of Gold Standard Project Design, and is an important tool for helping students understand how to apply the ideas, strategies, and content they are learning to new situations– including to the challenges they may encounter on standardized tests. As you plan and facilitate your project, consider when and how you will provide students with opportunities to reflect in ways that facilitate transfer of knowledge and skills. Sample prompts for reflection might include:

  • What strategies did you use to understand and solve this problem? How did you know to use those strategies? 
  • Where else might you use [content]?
  • What was challenging for you about this part of the project? What helps you keep going when you feel challenged?

In his blog post “Using Project-Based Learning to Help Students Develop Transferable Skills," Michael McDowell suggests several novel strategies for supporting transfer, including the use of a “sequel,” which he defines as “an activity at the end of a project where students are presented with a new problem in a new context that’s related to the same core content in the original problem.” For example, students who have just completed a mathematics project in which they learned about sinusoidal functions in the context of radio waves and audio production might then spend a day exploring problems in which they practice with other applications of this content (such as tides or electrical currents), or students who have completed a project in which they use primary source documents about local history might engage in a follow-up activity in which they apply the nonfiction reading skills they learned through the project to unfamiliar primary source documents.

Reflective questions to support this strategy:
  • How can I help students to identify the cognitive strategies and content-area skills they are using in the project, and consider when and how they might apply those strategies and skills to unfamiliar tasks?
  • What opportunities can I build into a project (or beyond a project) to support transfer of learning to new contexts?
Strategy #5: Build a classroom culture that values and nurtures the genius in every student.

PBL can transform the way students see themselves and one another, and a strong PBL culture honors the unique identities, strengths, and gifts of each learner. Standardized tests will never capture the full picture of who your learners are and all that they bring. But you can lean on the power of your classroom culture to help students navigate the challenges of standardized testing. This includes drawing on the four equity levers for PBL, as follows:

Knowledge of Students: Using culturally responsive instructional practices that connect with students’ identities and communities, and teaching students that “code switching” for varied purposes and audiences (including when taking standardized tests) is a tool they can draw on as needed, but does not make their own languages and identities less valuable.

Cognitive Demand: Building students’ confidence in their own abilities by holding and communicating high intellectual expectations for all learners, and providing frequent and specific positive feedback on student growth and effort; cultivating students’ belief in their own ability to do complex cognitive work and to be lifelong learners.

Literacy: Providing students with frequent opportunities for listening, speaking, reading, and writing for a range of purposes and audiences; building students’ background knowledge about the world through exposure to rich and varied texts.

Shared Power: Using structures and language that communicate a sense of “we’re all in this together” rather than structures and languages that reinforce ranking or competition among students; normalizing testing anxiety and teaching students strategies for managing it.

Reflective questions to support this strategy:
  • How does my classroom culture already communicate a belief in every student’s capabilities and intelligence? How might I strengthen this?
  • How can the language, physical environment, routines and rituals, and classroom norms and structures in my classroom contribute to a community where students feel confident, connected, and seen? How can these aspects of classroom culture nurture a growth mindset?

Students CAN engage in deep, authentic learning through PBL and excel on standardized tests (and the research backs this up!) Using the strategies noted here can help to ensure that your students are ready for high-stakes tests while also ensuring that they’re ready to thrive and contribute in the complex, non-standardized world that will face them when the test is over.


Sarah Field, Senior Professional Learning Designer
Sarah designs professional development programs and curriculum for PBLWorks.