Can depth of knowledge be measured by multiple choice tests alone? How can student communication and demonstration of what students can do with what they have learned best be measured?


Performance Based Assessment.

Project Based Learning (PBL) is performance based assessment. Think about it.


PBL lessons/units teach content. Proficiency level determination is based on the use of learned content in the creation of new and useful ideas, products or solutions communicated in tangible ways, then evaluated according to standard, or—assessed on level of performance.

As well, Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are performance based making PBL the perfect vehicle for alignment and instruction.

Institutions such as Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and Smarter Balanced have come up with assessment ideas aligned to CCSS that John Larmer details well in the first article of his series on “How PBL Prepares Students for CCSS Test Performance Tasks…“. Based on ideas in the criteria for assessment made by Smarter Balanced that Larmer discusses in his article, the tests might be like this:


Standardized tests with multiple choice sections, each section ending with a performance assessment.


The performance assessment part goes as follows:

  1. The teacher facilitates the test, which is structured much like a single lesson from a PBL unit of study.
  2. Students go through the learning process that culminates in a result, and yes, partner work, even group work is involved as part of the test.
  3. The test takes a couple of days to complete.
  4. Students are assessed on their performance after the lesson has been taught.
  5. The outcome or product of the test / lesson determines proficiency level.

Observations — Not Absolutes. 

  1. The performance assessment sections not only test student content knowledge, they also provide an immediate reflection of teacher and instructional strategy effectiveness.
  2. Scoring of performance based tests is costly and time consuming when done as state assessments.
  3. Data results of statewide performance assessments often arrive too late for comparative analysis.
  4. Scoring performance based written communication and product outcomes is subjective making results questionable.
  5. Statewide assessment of performance based outcomes is redundant when the assessment is done as a regular part of classroom instruction. Use money to pay for statewide teacher training in how to implement Project Based Learning instead.

Standardized Tests and Performance Based Assessments

Regardless of test type, the results show that at least since 1996, PBL has made a substantial difference in student learning. Indiana University of Indianapolis, Center of Excellence in Leadership of Learning published in 2009 a Summary on Student Research and Project-based LearningIn this study they found the following:

  • …students working on a geometry project linked to architecture and design utilized measurement skills as they developed their blueprints, of which 84% met architectural building standards (Barron, et al., 1998).
  • …one study of PBL showed a positive effect on low-ability students, who increased their use of critical-thinking skills including synthesizing, evaluating, predicting, and reflecting by 446% while high-ability students improved by 76% (Horan, et al., 1996).

How does this happen? Relevance.


PBL teaches students how to apply information learned to real world situations and to retain the knowledge that is learned. They remember what they learn because they see meaning in what they do.

Pay Attention to What is Being Tested.

Standardized tests happen, and Andrew K. Miller, Educator, Writer, and Certified Literacy Design Collaborative Trainer has a few tips to keep in mind when designing PBL units to fit the criteria of various standardized tests.

  1. Work within the structures of the test. Sometimes test criteria limits the amount of time spent on each standard, but it doesn’t limit creative ways to adapt PBL content to cover the required standards.
  2. Use PBL as a process to learning, not as a culminating project after test prep activities. As Andrew says, “Dessert projects are bad, but PBL leverages the project as the entire learning of the unit, not just the end.”
  3. Make sure PBL units hit frequently targeted standards of learning covered in these tests.
  4. Use sample test questions as formative assessments in the units of study.

Don’t have time to write PBL units? 


This week’s Think-and-Take lesson is to examine PBL units of study from GoTeachGo as found on Teacher’s-Pay-Teachers. They are truly Buy Today-Teach Tomorrow PBL Units with engaging titles including “Headbanger Nation: Youth Concussion Awareness Initiative“. Customize these units easily to fit the CCSS standards and/or other skills testing criteria.


Each unit incorporates the following PBL steps to learning:

  1. Driving or Essential Question
  2. Critical Thinking and Research
  3. Collaboration
  4. Communication
  5. Sharing
  6. Revision and Reflection
  7. Technology Integration
  8. 21st Century Skills

Each unit includes appendices that include the following:

  • extension activities and suggestions for customization
  • graphics and data for reference and use in lessons
  • black-line masters
  • list after list of research sources
  • rubrics for peer and teacher assessment
  • units available in three grade level sets: 4-5; 6-8; 9-12


Teachers LOVE these units because they SAVE them so much TIME, and because they provide RELEVANT TOPICS that keep students ENGAGED in their learning—and this means ACADEMIC SUCCESS!


Be sure to visit TeachersPayTeachers to examine lots of great PBL units of study from GoTeachGo.


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