Donate today!
view counter

December 2015 Vol. 23. No. 3 Focus on Standardized Tests

Theme articles

How to measure project-based learning

At hands-on sites such as the Workshop School, officials say the key is to make students accountable. Children help assess what went well or badly.


Connie Langland

on Dec 2, 2015 11:46 AM
Photo: Harvey Finkle

Khalil Hicks (left) and Michael Ware check under the hood of a car at the Workshop School in West Philadelphia. The school has won praise for its project-based approach to learning.

By his own account, Khalil Hicks had an excellent first quarter at the Workshop School in West Philadelphia.

He created a website to share information about his life and emerging skills.

He worked with teammates to design and build a cardboard boat that was big enough to carry his thin frame most of the way across a swimming pool.

And in engineering workshop, he constructed a camera obscura – a pinhole camera – even figuring out a way to include a rudimentary zoom lens, using glass.

All this accrued to his credit in the first two months of 10th grade at the innovative District high school in West Philadelphia.

But there’s more: Even as Hicks was using duct tape and Latex paint to seal the sides of the boat and do all the other crafting that he did, he was learning the “soft” skills now in demand in the world of work. Among them: critical thinking and problem-solving. Creativity and entrepreneurship. Communication and collaboration.

On a recent morning, Hicks, 15, delivered an assessment of his efforts in a 20-minute presentation to classmates, his teachers, and his father.

His polo shirt was buttoned and tucked, and his wire-rimmed glasses caught the light as his PowerPoint flashed on the screen behind him.

“I did good, yes I did, but I could have put more time on the website and put more time into my script,” said Hicks.

New ways to assess students

Even as debate swirls around high-stakes standardized assessments, some schools are de-emphasizing tests and rote learning. Instead, they ask students to tackle projects that require brainstorming, concentration, big-picture thinking, and applying math, engineering, and science skills. Teachers, too, are learning new ways to assess students, offering feedback, rating students on setting and reaching goals, and translating the math and other academic skills used to complete a project into competencies on a report card. Others have embraced standards-based assessments, where students have a second chance to master content in order to achieve proficiency.

The common thread is the focus on student engagement in their own learning and an increasing awareness that when students learn by doing and reflect on their efforts, they are more likely to find satisfaction in school and see pathways to academic and career success.

The upshot is “making kids accountable,” said Matt Riggan, a cofounder of the school. Every quarter, students must describe and defend their work – and acknowledge what went wrong and what they can do better.

“If you haven’t done what you’re supposed to have done, you can’t really run away or hide from it,” he said. “Knowing that every quarter you’re going to have to stand in front of your classmates talking about your work is a very different level of accountability than that number you got on your report card.”

There are long-standing examples of this hands-on approach. The region’s numerous technical schools retooled their curriculum in the last years of the 20th century, attuning their various studies to the needs of industry and aligning instruction with industry standards. Outcomes-based education – trial and error, learning by doing – is part and parcel of “shop” class. The District’s creative and performing arts schools put the emphasis on honing talent and collaboration.

And there are the newcomers: the Workshop School and Science Leadership Academy, including its second SLA campus at Beeber and a middle school in University City due to open next year.

Last year, the District opened three new schools in North Philadelphia seeking to build on this model: Building 21, the U School, and the LINC.

Building 21 and the Workshop School both have won grants from the Next Generation Learning Challenges school reform initiative, which encourages educators to measure student success in four areas: content knowledge, creative know-how, habits of success, and “way-finding abilities,” including setting goals and identifying career and college possibilities.

Students solving big problems

High school students can tackle big problems in their communities, said Joseph Merlino, president of 21PSTEM, a research and advocacy consortium based in Conshohocken. It has played a major role in the design of five project-based, STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) high schools that have opened in Egypt since 2011, with plans for four more. Students in those schools, Merlino said, have designed projects intended to help solve some of that country’s greatest development challenges, including water use, traffic congestion and disease prevention.

In Merlino’s view, what has worked with great initial success in Egypt, where a team of girls won recognition for their water purification project in a global competition earlier this year, can work in Philadelphia. To that end a nonprofit group including 21PSTEM has won $150,000 grant from the Barra Foundation to design a projects-based curriculum combining STEM education with arts and cultural studies. Planning began in November with input from teachers and other educators, and representatives of business, the arts, and various cultural institutions. The goal, Merlino said, is to launch the curriculum in two or more city schools, yet to be chosen.

Folded into the projects-based approach is a commitment to proficiency-based assessments, where the focus is on learning the material – getting to proficiency – instead of settling for a particular score on the day of the test. Teachers can find evidence of proficiency on a particular standard within the student’s body of work or by that student’s work on a formal assessment.

Failure or missed points are taken in stride.

“We consider failure to be part of the learning process,” said Merlino. “You practice a lot, you learn more, and finally you succeed.”

Does the project-based approach impede success on state-mandated Keystone tests in algebra, literature and biology? “We don’t see any problem,” the former math teacher said.

Kenrick Tan was in the Workshop School’s first small graduating class in 2012. He was part of the team that developed the Bright Ideas project, which identified a key reason for high energy use in buildings. The team’s research showed that six to eight bulbs in a household account for 80 percent of lighting use. If consumers were to use LED bulbs and also learn to cut back on those “high-use” lighting sites, savings would be significant.

The students developed auditing software to track the use of each bulb – and won funding, competitions and respect for their work.

“I made a lot of presentations,” said Tan. “I presented at City Hall. Mayor Nutter was there, [U.S. Rep.] Chaka Fattah was there. I used to be scared to stand up in front of people, but then I started promoting Bright Ideas.”

Tan continued his studies at Community College of Philadelphia and wants to study energy engineering at Penn State.

This past year, Workshop students refurbished an old van into a food truck to teach children in West Philadelphia about the benefits of healthy food. “No junk in our truck!” was their motto.

And in June 2014, a team of students and school cofounder Simon Hauger won praise from President Obama at the White House Maker Faire for their lightweight car with a Volkswagen engine that they had modified to run on fryer oil.

“At this school, they want you to be honest about your work – if you did good, if you did bad, what you can do to improve. We reflect on every piece of work that we do,” said Hicks, standing in a hallway with his father, Tony Robertson. “This school is way different than other schools. It gives you lots of opportunities to do what you want to do.”

Robertson agreed. “This school is based on individual attention, and at the same time, they give students a chance to give each other feedback and to ask questions. I think that’s really important when it comes to learning.”

Proof of learning

Student Michael Ware, 15, said he’s identified himself as a kinesthetic learner. He recalled not being enthusiastic in the early, talk-it-through stages of the boat-building project, “but I just exploded with energy when we started building the boat.”

When it came time to put the boat in the water and row it across the pool, “it was really fine, it didn’t fall apart. Ours didn’t sink,” he said.

His teachers would call that proof of learning.

Khalil Hicks also felt that he learned a lot, even though his boat didn’t quite make it all the way across the pool.

In his presentation, Hicks told classmates that overall he was satisfied with the project, but next time, he would “make sure everything gets painted two, three times because that boat sunk.”

Overall, he said, his attendance has been good, with few tardies.

“My goal for this year,” said Hicks, “is to make sure I hit all the deadlines and keep up my grades. I think I can achieve more, push more and be more persistent.”

His classmates responded with a round of applause, and the two teachers in the room and his father joined in.

About the Author

Connie Langland is a freelance education writer.

Comments (38)

Submitted by Educatiobal leader (not verified) on December 1, 2015 7:20 pm

Excellent student driven learning lessons with creative problem solving outcomes. Math, technology, reading, science, speaking,  listening, evaluation and collaboration seamlessly integrated but I would also add a writing component.  Low level write about steps in the process- high level write prediction of project outcome before project is completed and then after analyze why the outcome happened or not. Then verbally present the information to the group. This also supports the learner who needs more time to process and think especially when workinging in collaboration with others. It allows also for self reflection about working on solution with collaborative teams.

Submitted by Arnold (not verified) on April 15, 2017 5:28 am

hello there was simply checking whether you minded a remark. i like your site and the thme you picked is super. I will be back. link building packages

Submitted by Tajin (not verified) on July 24, 2016 11:17 am

Best learning i like it good business my friends and good luck next post.

Top flash games dress up girls on many websites on internet and free.

العاب تلبيس بنات

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 31, 2016 12:56 pm

تعتبر العاب ماكياج وتلبيس بنات لعبة رائعة تبحث عنها جميع الفتيات من محبات موقع العاب بنات اللواتي اعتدن على الدخول لقسم العاب تلبيس بنات الرائع، حيث أن اللعبة تتوفر على الكثير من القطع الواجب عليك تلبيسها لفتاتنا الجميلة لتظهر في ابهى حلة،

Submitted by jeux-2 (not verified) on December 23, 2016 2:00 pm

فقد يكون فيها غامبول وصديقه داروين ويعتبروا من مقاتلوا الماء واللاعب الذي يقوم بلعب هذه اللعبة يقوم بمساعدة غامبول وصاحبه بإطلاق بالونات من الماء حتى يتخلصوا من درجة حرارة الماء المرتفعة، ويحافظوا على درجة برودتها والتغلب على درجة الحرارة هذه. تعريف حول العاب غامبول: يعتبر غامبول قط يبلغ عمره إثنا عشر عاما، ويحب المغامرات والقيام بالأفعال الجنونيةلعبة زومالعبة المزرعة السعيدةلعبة من سيربح المليونالعاب مكياج العاب سبونج بوبالعاب ماريو250العاب 250لعبة جاتاالعاب فلاش

Submitted by jeux-2 (not verified) on December 23, 2016 2:41 pm

وفقد تتيح هذه اللعبة للاعب أن يقوم بتجميع الذهب الموجود على السكك الحديدية ومن ثم يتنقل من فوق سطح العربات وبعضها البعض بطريقة سريعا هربا من الظابط الذي يرغب في القبض عليه. طريقة اللعب في لعبة صب واى : تقوم طريقة اللعب في هذه اللعبة على السرعة لدى الشخص الاعب في تحريك الإتجاهات التي يسير فيها العاب بن تنالعاب دوراالعاب كرة قدمالعاب ذكاءالعاب مغامراتالعاب اولاد العاب سونيكالعاب اطفالالعاب توم وجيريالعاب بلياردولعبة الفراخ

Submitted by Arnold (not verified) on March 24, 2017 3:02 am

I went over this site and I trust you have a ton of brilliant data, spared to my bookmarks custom chenille patches

Submitted by Arnold (not verified) on March 24, 2017 5:50 am

I needed to thank you for this awesome read!! I unquestionably getting a charge out of each and every piece of it I have you bookmarked to look at new stuff you post. Crete Villas

Submitted by Arnold (not verified) on April 12, 2017 12:57 pm

I am unquestionably making the most of your site. You unquestionably have some extraordinary knowledge and awesome stories. santa letter

Submitted by M Saleem (not verified) on January 5, 2017 11:06 pm

Decomposition of polynomial into two more factors is called factorization. It is usually done in algebra as well in numbers. For example the factorization of polynomial x2 − 4 is as (x − 2)(x + 2). It is pertinent to mention here that final answer obtained through factorization is always in product shape.

The basic theme for which the factorization is done is that the provided polynomial has to be reduced into basic building blocks or into irreducible polynomials. Some time fundamental theorem is also used in order to factoring the polynomial. The terminology used as opposite of polynomial factorization is called expansion. The final answer obtained through expansion is always got in the shape of sum of terms. When we will use fundamental theorem, every positive integer greater than one has a unique prime factorization. I will make factorization with the following methods with the help of videos:-

(a)       By taking common

(b)       By mid term break method

(c)        By applying formula


<a href="<iframe width="480" height="270" src="" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>">factorization</a>


Submitted by Paket Umroh Murah (not verified) on February 24, 2017 5:14 am

Travel Umroh Terpercaya menyediakan 

Umroh Plus Turki I Paket Haji Plus 2017 I Haji Plus 2017 I Umroh Maret 2017 I Umroh Ramadhan I Paket Umroh April 2017 I Umroh Ramadhan 2017

Submitted by Arnold (not verified) on March 16, 2017 8:34 am

New site is solid. A debt of gratitude is in order for the considerable exertion. mx player for pc

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 25, 2018 6:20 pm

Your site is truly cool and this is an incredible rousing article. Much thanks to you to such an extent. iq option

Submitted by Arnold (not verified) on April 12, 2017 7:44 am

Is it alright to post some portion of this on my site essentially present a hyperlink on this site page? mattress stores los angeles

Submitted by Cameron (not verified) on March 17, 2017 5:37 pm
Exceptionally decent article, I appreciated perusing your post, extremely pleasant offer, I need to twit this to my adherents. Much appreciated!. Love Commands
Submitted by Cameron (not verified) on March 19, 2017 2:34 am

I am sure you have a great fan following out there. Secret Love Commands

Submitted by Arnold (not verified) on March 20, 2017 5:02 am

I truly like your thoughts on the issue. I now have an unmistakable thought on what this matter is about..

Submitted by Cameron (not verified) on March 21, 2017 3:02 pm

A debt of gratitude is in order for sharing us. Hero Instinct

Submitted by Cameron (not verified) on March 22, 2017 10:30 am
Your contents give me more creational ideas that I can possibly use on my web page too. Love Commands
Submitted by Arnold (not verified) on March 23, 2017 6:09 am

This is an awesome article a debt of gratitude is in order for sharing this enlightening data. I will visit your site consistently for some most recent post. I will visit your website consistently for Some most recent post. what is link building seo

Submitted by Cameron (not verified) on March 24, 2017 3:34 pm
You have finished a surprising job with you website. His Secret Obsession
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 25, 2017 11:08 am

Really great post. I just discovered your web journal and needed to say that I have truly delighted in perusing your blog entries. Any way I'll be subscribing to your food and I trust you post again soon. Huge a debt of gratitude is in order for the helpful data. Hero Instinct

Submitted by Kim (not verified) on March 25, 2017 12:15 pm

I am extremely delighted in for this web journal. Its a useful subject. It help me all that much to take care of a few issues. Its chance are so awesome and working style so fast. Obsession Phrases

Submitted by Jason (not verified) on March 30, 2017 9:48 am

I am extremely delighted in for this web journal. Its a useful subject. It help me all that much to take care of a few issues. Its chance are so awesome and working style so fast. Lean Belly Breakthrough

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 3, 2017 12:45 pm

Thanks for the nice blog. It was very useful for me. I'm happy I found this blog. Thank you for sharing with us,I too always learn something new from your post. dirty questions to ask a guy

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 8, 2017 11:18 am

I was surfing net and luckily ran over this site and discovered extremely fascinating stuff here. Its truly amusing to peruse. I delighted in a ton. A debt of gratitude is in order for sharing this magnificent data. Why Men Pull Away

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 10, 2017 11:01 am

Great Information sharing .. I am very happy to read this article .. thanks for giving us go through info.Fantastic nice. I appreciate this post. Obsession Phrases

Submitted by check cashing Bridgeport (not verified) on April 27, 2017 12:05 am

We actually love to oblige you the best things with 100% agreements and faster ever. check cashing Bridgeport

Submitted by Nelson145 (not verified) on May 5, 2017 6:05 am

These are actually wonderful some ideas in the blog. You have touched good quality points here. In whatever way continue writing.

Ryan Cataldo Jupiter FL


Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 8, 2018 2:46 am
Extremely pleasant article, I delighted in perusing your post, exceptionally decent share, I need to twit this to my devotees. Much obliged!. разработка веб приложений
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 30, 2018 3:15 am

A debt of gratitude is in order for imparting pleasant data to us. i like your post and all you impart to us is uptodate and very useful, i might want to bookmark the page so i can come here again to peruse you, as you have made a superb showing. техническое задание на разработку программного обеспечения

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

By using this service you agree not to post material that is obscene, harassing, defamatory, or otherwise objectionable. We reserve the right to delete or remove any material deemed to be in violation of this rule, and to ban anyone who violates this rule. Please see our "Terms of Usage" for more detail concerning your obligations as a user of this service. Reader comments are limited to 500 words. You are fully responsible for the content that you post.

Table of Contents

Read the latest print issue

Philly Ed Feed


Public School Notebook

699 Ranstead St.
Third Floor
Philadelphia, PA 19106
Phone: (215) 839-0082
Fax: (215) 238-2300

© Copyright 2013 The Philadelphia Public School Notebook. All Rights Reserved.
Terms of Usage and Privacy Policy