Friday, December 1, 2023

Projects reflect real problem solving better than tests


Matthew Steindecker, a student at Charles E Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, Maryland, opines as follows in The Lion’s Tale, the student newspaper:

While projects simulate real-world experiences, tests are artificial and don’t replicate any scenarios that one might encounter in the future. In the real world, to solve a problem you are able to collaborate with others and use previous resources, both of which are prohibited during tests. Also, students can receive feedback throughout the process of a project, whereas during tests, students have less incentive to actually pay attention to any feedback with their grade.

Mr Steindecker’s report references a few research studies from earlier this year out of Michigan State University, in collaboration with the University of Southern California, and from the University of Michigan. These studies compared students who had experienced project-based learning to those who had not. Students in both studies who were in PBL programs generally performed better on standardized tests than those who were not.

Collaboration in real-world problem solving (iStockPhoto)


The headline of Mr Steindecker’s article was somewhat misleading in that these studies drew no conclusions about the efficacy of standardized tests to do what they were designed to do, which is, for the most part, report the quality of education students get from a teacher, a school, a district, or a state, to the federal government. Standardized tests are required by the Every Student Succeeds Act in math, English language arts, and science.

Project-based learning programs, on the contrary, aren’t designed to produce reports that get sent to the feds. They’re designed for the purpose of helping students master specific content. So while tests are designed to assess how well students have mastered content, projects are designed to help students master the content.

In other words, comparing tests to projects in our schools is like comparing apples to oranges. Both serve their purpose, though the purposes are very different.

But we definitely agree with Mr Steindecker’s conclusion that projects better reflect real-world problem solving than tests do. Standardized tests—and their value to the educational community can be argued on different grounds—don’t even have the goal of simulating real-world problem solving, especially the collaboration component.

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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