projects.jpg

Project-based learning allows students to apply what they learn in the classroom to real world experiences.

Scantron forms and No. 2 pencils, cover sheets and desktop computers with dividers in between — standardized tests in American public schools are so ubiquitous that it’s become a shared inside joke by a whole generation. They’re so secretive, in fact, that everyone must swear to never speak of the test they have just taken, but of course, they do. There’s a whole genre of Twitter humor devoted to PSAT and AP exam memes. Because just about every student is so used to taking these and other standardized tests, no one ever really questions if they’re helping anyone at all. Some schools are moving toward project-based learning rather than testing based, which may prove to be more beneficial. 

Project-based learning is more than the projects already integrated into the curriculum; the whole curriculum is centered around projects rather than memorizing information and dumping it back into a bubble on a scantron form. Project-based learning is particularly beneficial because it allows students to apply what they’re learning in the classroom to real-world experiences. Many students might miss out on sleep or time with friends and family because they’re worried about grades or their next big test. They may experience physical symptoms of stress or anxiety, known as test anxiety. For some students, crippling test anxiety can be difficult to deal with. It’s hard to explain because most students take tests, but not everyone freezes up and feels like they don’t know how to think when presented with multiple choice questions. When tests invoke this type of stress, it’s nearly impossible to see them as a beneficial learning tool. 

For some students who grew up in a public school in the state of Virginia, the term SOL may evoke stress, anxiety or, at the very least, annoyance. These standardized exams are seen as the benchmark which most classes are required to base their curriculum around. The tests occur at the end of the year and are heavily guarded. Passing these tests is required in order to obtain a verified transferable credit, in accordance with the No Child Left Behind Act, for many classes. These tests were meant to help students in the long run, but many students and teachers alike dislike them because they limit creativity in the classroom. Teachers often cover what seem to be pointless topics because “this will be on the SOL” — a phrase that so many students know all too well.  

If project-based learning replaced standardized tests, it would allow for far greater creativity in the classroom. Ideally, this would improve student confidence because they wouldn’t spend all of their time just trying to pass the next test. It would also foster creativity by allowing students to explore fields of interest through projects. Students would not only learn more but would be better prepared for the workforce by experiencing real-world situations such as group work and independent research. A study measured differences between students learning similar information in a traditional and project based style over the course of three years. The students who had project based learning performed three times as well as the others on a national exam. 

Virginia students have argued that there’s no benefit to SOLs, and they aren’t a representation of that student’s performance, especially if they’re doing well in the class already. Despite this, there seems to be no signs of public schools doing away with the tests because they’re seen as a marker for the schools’ overall performances. Schools are either rewarded or punished based on the performance of their students. Though this doesn’t seem fair, it’s likely that getting rid of SOLs would take work and the passing or overturning of several laws.

Georgia Leipold-Vitiello is a freshman media art and design major. Contact her at leipolge@dukes.jmu.edu.