Saturday, February 8, 2014

Great Teaching of Rich Content Happens In Spite-Not Because-Of State Exams

Would reducing the number of state exams undercut student learning? Would teachers stop teaching what is no longer tested until a future grade level? Would learning suffer because teachers receive achievement data from fewer state tests?

No. No. And no.
Let’s look at the third grade Social Studies exams in Virginia to illustrate why. Currently, Virginia’s third grade students take state exams in reading, math, science, and Social Studies. Proposals winning widespread support in the state legislature would remove the third grade tests in science and social studies (among other exams in grades 3 to 8), while retaining the tests in these areas at later grade levels.    
Reducing the number of state exams would support effective Social Studies instruction because the large number of state exams can lead to an approach where teachers just try to race through presenting an endless stream of facts without sparking student interest or deep understanding. Reducing the number of SOL exams would allow for more in-depth instruction and deeper, longer lasting learning.
The Ponce De Leon team makes its pitch!
The Sail Away with Me project taught by the third grade team at Seaford Elementary School illustrates that deep, long-lasting learning of important content and skills often occurs in spite (not because) of state exams. Playing the role of an explorer with access to modern technology, students create an iMovie commercial. They seek to persuade aspiring explorers to travel with them to the New World by sharing the successes and achievements that they had on previous voyages. Because they want to create compelling videos for their peers, students commit themselves more fully to learning about Columbus, Ponce de Leon, Cartier and Newport.
Students in each class signed up to join one of the explorers. Check out some of the results below. Here is the video that garnered the most enlistments.

Important content is at the heart of this project. This is not content-lite. This project addresses third grade state standards relating to History, English, and Writing.
The assessment data provided by this project is much more useful for modifying instruction than the information provided by a state exam. The teachers don’t have to wait until summer for results. They immediately gain important assessment data regarding student strengths and weaknesses that helps them adjust instruction now. For example, the teachers used a rubric to assess the English and Writing standards involved with this project.

Unfortunately, many teachers hesitate to teach this or other in-depth projects because they believe they don’t have time for deep learning when they need to prepare students for so many state exams. Reducing the number of statewide exams will help teachers realize that they can teach projects such as Sail Away with Me.  The state standards will then be taught in a much more engaging, effective manner. And then students will be even better prepared for Social Studies state exams in future years, even if they don’t have a Social Studies exam in third grade.

Kudos to Stacey Herrick (@Herricks_Hokies), Heather Long, Kelly Skinner, and Amanda Mayfield for implementing this project!

Want to learn more about the project?

Here is a two page overview. Here is the writing assessment. Here is a link to the sixteen videos created by the students.

Related Posts:
School Board Speaks Out On High Stakes Testing
5 Reasons to Exhibit Student Work



  1. What a wonderful project! The students will remember this for a long time!

  2. To view other TPBL projects that our grade level has completed and participated in, visit our website at .