The Bubble Test Trap vs. Project Based Learning

The Bubble Test Trap vs. Project Based Learning

For the past five years, I have been working with a small, wonderful  “themed” public high school located in an Eastern United States urban city. I volunteer my services to the staff, help to develop the curriculum, work with teachers, and am a member of the school’s Advisory Committee.

 At this school, seniors are required to develop a research project around a current issue or problem, such as child abuse, pollution, hunger, or urban violence. After selecting a topic, developing a thesis statement and conducting considerable research, students are required to do a presentation on their process and results to a panel of teachers and others from outside the school. They are also required to develop a project portfolio that includes a ten-page paper on their topic, reflections on related fieldwork requirements, and other components of the project.

 The school has developed a sustained effort to help students successfully complete this project. Several teachers in the school direct the process, assist students, and facilitate the projects. Students are able to do a great deal of the work for the project in one of their senior classes. Many teachers, other staff members, and outside mentors help students during the project’s development.

 After all this work and effort, we who are panel members and hear the presentations are often disappointed at the quality of student work. Many of the presentations show limited research skills, a limited knowledge base, and poor understanding of the topic. Many project papers are of poor quality in terms of content, organization, analysis, creativity, and mechanics. Although some students do excellent work, a large number turn in work that suggests they will have difficulty in college and other post high school experiences.

 Why is the quality of the work for so many so poor? The answer is complex, but I believe that a large part of the answer lies with the expectations created by a traditional curriculum and assessment system that builds in the wrong expectations and incentives for teachers and students, and limits success in the areas that matter the most.

 Some of the problem lies with student backgrounds and home life. Many students have little opportunity at home to read, discuss, and build the kind of knowledge base and vocabulary that suburban students develop over time. But a much bigger problem is that so many students have little opportunity in elementary and middle school to read deeply, discuss, do research, write papers, and create projects. Simply put, too many students in urban (and in many other) areas are not engaged in “real learning”. The learning of facts and procedures predominate. Too much reading time is focused on skill development; too little on reading and analyzing good literature. Too much time in the elementary grades is devoted to reading skill development and mathematics; too little is often given to science, social studies, the arts, and foreign languages, because they are generally not considered important to the school’s evaluation process.

 There is very little curriculum coherence – most subjects do not build and refine key ideas or complex thinking and research skills over time. Students are often bored and not engaged or involved in learning. In-depth research projects that focus on finding reliable data, using multiple sources, synthesizing information, developing arguments, are rare at all grade levels. Students are rarely taken on field experiences that provide interesting and dynamic opportunities for real life learning. Few outsiders come to the schools to talk with students about the world outside school, and what they must do to succeed in the “real” world.

 In my view, a major cause of these curriculum and program shortcomings lies with No Child Left Behind regulations built around reading and mathematics standardized “fill in the bubble” tests. In states and cities across the country, these two standardized tests are used as THE KEY marker of academic success by schools, school districts, parents and the public at large. Last year, at the urban high school described above, 77% of the students scored proficient on the reading test. This was a very good score for a school in the heart of an urban city. Unfortunately, proficient scoring on this test has little to do with whether students are adequately prepared for college level work. And preparation for this test strongly influences what happens at school and often leads to boredom and lack of learning.

 For example, at this high school, some classes in the junior year are almost totally devoted to insuring that students do well on the State’s standardized reading and mathematics exams. The District’s standardized curriculum tends to emphasize traditional coverage learning in the belief that this is most important for preparing students for the test. While many exceptional teachers at the school make efforts to transcend the traditional curriculum, there is little incentive for teachers to implement the kind of long-term, sustained instructional activities -- close analysis of readings, idea development, critical thinking, research, and collaboration -- that are necessary preparations for the major senior research project, a requirement that doesn’t “count” in the School District’s measures of academic achievement. 

 Compare the student experience at this school with those who attend High Tech High in San Diego, California, where I visited last January (1). This urban charter school has taken a significantly different approach to teaching and learning, and it has paid off. Project centered instruction begins with the ninth grade. Students take interdisciplinary courses, and each teacher focuses learning around essential questions tied to projects. The heart of the school’s assessment process is student POL’s – Presentations of Learning – when students present their work and research. POL’s start in the ninth grade (before that if students attend the High Tech High’s middle school). Throughout their four years, much of student learning is focused around in-depth research projects, culminating in both written work and presentations. Outside of school visits and fieldwork is the norm, not the exception. Professional development days are provided to teachers so that they can examine student work collaboratively and determine whether students are producing the high quality work they expect. By the time students are seniors, they are well versed in how to use and analyze multiple texts and data, read for understanding, use research strategies, complete complex projects, write coherent papers, present results, and produce high quality work.

 High Tech High students have to take California’s tests, but the school spends little time preparing students for the tests. They don’t worry about how their students do on the tests – much more focus is on the quality of the work that students do for their projects, research, and writing. For this school, electronically kept student portfolios are the major measure of student success.

 Ideally, as I have stated in another blog, we should be moving Nationally in the direction of requiring schools to assess learning through a set of comprehensive exams and required graduation projects (2). However, it does not look like these changes will be coming anytime soon, so states, schools and districts will have to develop their own assessment fixes. There are a number of ways that all schools and districts can start to work on this problem in a relatively simple fashion. Several school districts that I have worked with in the past have instituted a series of transition grade level projects, leading to a senior project required for graduation (this requirement is part of Pennsylvania’s curriculum regulations). Each transition project is designed to help students learn and practice the research and project skills that are important in a 21st century world, so that students, when they reach their senior year, already have developed a sophisticated set of skills to help them complete the required culminating graduation project. For example, instituting required transition projects at the end of the second, fifth, and eighth grades, culminating with a twelfth grade graduation project, would signal that the ability to learn and use the skills required by a significant research project –to develop a problem statement, find and evaluate information, read for understanding, analyze text, write coherently and persuasively, and communicate effectively – is as important as scoring well on a standardized test. The results would demonstrate that students have developed key skills and understandings that support their future work in college and in life. The projects would also signal that learning these skills and building them into the curriculum at each level is an important undertaking. One would hope that instituting these projects would lead to greater emphasis on doing research and developing projects at all grade levels, and that this would be the beginning of a trend towards greater project based learning and research based instruction throughout the K-12 instructional program (3).

 The future of America in large measure depends on the direction that our country takes in educating students so they are prepared for the challenges of a 21st century world. The urban school I described above is a wonderful place, with passionate and committed teachers, a good school climate and culture, many laudatory activities, and a belief that students can succeed. It produces many wonderful young men and women with strong character and leadership qualities. Yet it still misses the mark academically, because it cannot avoid the poor quality of learning in earlier years, the standardized coverage based curriculum, and the State’s bubble tests that primarily define its success. It has not fully embraced the concepts of research and project based instruction, and so limits its ability to provide students with an instructional program that would prepare students for college and the outside world.

 On the other hand, High Tech High has purposely and forcefully charted a different path, one that helps students continually learn and practice the important skills they will need both in college and the world in which they will live, and measures their success and achievement by their process abilities, products and performances. Key assessments focus around the completion of high quality projects, the quality of student work, critical thinking and research abilities, and collaboration skills.

 There are steps that schools and districts can take to move in this positive direction, one being the adoption of transition and culminating projects that foster critical skill development. But it would be better if we as a nation understood the need to move in this direction, and changed our Nation’s laws and regulations so as to provide incentives to move in this direction. So far, we are failing the test of providing the incentives and assessments that will help to prepare the large majority of our students for tomorrow’s world. Let’s hope we can resolve to turn things around in the near future, and learn from those schools that are really making a difference.


(1) High Tech High information can be found at:

(2) See Seif, What should be the outcomes of schooling? How do we know if we’ve achieved them?  Blog commentary found at, blog section.

(3) For articles and links to resources about Project Based Learning, Research Based Instruction (RBI), and graduation projects and performances, go to:, and then to the era 3 learning resources/teaching and assessment section of the website.