The Case for Project-Based Assessment

In light of the challenges of remote learning, testing needs to adopt a more equitable model.

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By Sammi Chen

I can’t focus at home, I have a hard time understanding the content when taught online, I’m losing motivation from being alone these past six months...but I still have to take online exams as if nothing about my educational experience has changed?

This question runs through the mind of every student as he or she opens their laptop and navigate the confusing, cheating-prevention software we have been asked to install before an exam. Some programs simply lock down the browser or record movement between tabs during a timed exam session. Other programs claim to track eye movement and notify a teacher if any viewing patterns are deemed “suspicious.” Still, others can do anything from recording computer audio during exam sessions to analyzing the frequency at which a student types, in case they decide to copy a response from another source. These methods are undoubtedly impressive. But they are also a gross abuse of how we assess student learning.

When teachers funnel energy into mandating the most intricate cheating-prevention software, they fail to recognize two points. One, no software is fool-proof. If teachers go to such lengths in hopes of creating a level playing field come exam time, yet students still find ways to circumvent the software, then the burdensome installation process is rendered useless. Accordingly, it is virtually impossible to recreate the controlled, physical testing environment of a classroom through a computer screen. If this is the case, why utilize measures of learning that mandate cheating prevention software in the first place? Second, teachers need to realize that the energy invested in researching the best cheating-prevention software, mandating its installation, providing support to non-tech savvy students, and adapting to the program themselves could be better utilized if put toward designing new ways to assess student learning. Instead of traditional examination methods, teachers should adopt entirely project-based forms of assessment for as long as remote learning remains in effect.

To best understand the benefits of project-based assessment (PBA), it is important to recognize the student experience with online exams. At their core, online examination methods depend on students having reliable access to devices, stable work environments, and steady Internet connections. Yet even these three principles produce an inequitable assessment model. Within certain families, where students assume the additional role of a caregiver to younger siblings or older relatives, being able to take an exam in one sitting is simply not possible. When students are given the ultimatum of writing an essay in 45 minutes or feeding their younger siblings, it becomes evident that our assessment model has become not only flawed but devoid of empathy for unique student situations. Even in less drastic cases, it is not uncommon for students to share rooms with one or more individuals and/or lack private spaces to complete an exam. Distractions in the home learning environment should not serve as a form of academic punishment and should be reflected in a numeric assessment of what students know. Additionally, while the Department of Education has offered learning devices to students in need, they have yet to ensure widespread Internet connection, making the premise of online examination fundamentally inequitable. For a subgroup of students who rely on public WiFi networks or simply lack access to the Internet at all times of day, online exams are inaccessible ways to demonstrate learning. Furthermore, for the average student with working parents and younger siblings creating additional stress on home WiFi systems, the threat of a WiFi network simply crashing and shutting down during an online exam is omnipresent. After four months of remote learning, who hasn’t been randomly kicked out of a Zoom meeting or had their learning device abruptly reboot? Now imagine placing the same frustration and annoyance into a testing environment, where students have their grades on the line. Sure, they can e-mail their teachers and ask for a retake in the case of an incomplete exam. But with a lack of standardized policy for technical difficulties during online exams, it is alarmingly easy for teachers to decline these kinds of requests. Why should a student be punished for external factors preventing them from taking online exams? How can teachers tell which students are using “technical difficulties” as an excuse to cheat and which genuinely need extra time? Instead of navigating these difficult rhetorical questions and staunchly defending flawed testing methods, educators should look into viable alternatives.

Project Based Assessment (PBA) is more than just an alternative to testing—it’s an equitable form of measuring student performance that may become the future of testing altogether. Instead of multiple choice or short-answer formats, PBA is delivered as hands-on, collaborative assignments that test student learning through open-ended projects, including Powerpoints, research papers, short animations, and more. When compared to traditional assessment models, PBA resolves numerous issues raised by the former. Instead of measuring student fact recollection within a 45-minute window, PBA accounts for unique student situations by providing longer time frames for students to complete their work. Accordingly, this accounts for Internet volatility and additional at-home duties that may prevent students from performing at their best during online exams.

In addition to accounting for differences in student home environments, PBA’s appeal directly addresses one of the core pillars of Stuyvesant’s reputation: academic honesty. With access to the Internet, peer support, and anti-cheating software loopholes during exams, it is evidently more difficult to enforce academic honesty in an online setting. So, while online exams present one set of correct answers and rely on student integrity to produce them on their own, PBA expects every student to have a different response. Thus, it is fundamentally much more difficult to cheat on a week-long project than it is on a 45-minute multiple choice exam. If your responses on a multiple choice exam look identical to those of your classmate, you will receive the same grade without instructor knowledge of you cheating. But if two projects look identical, academic dishonesty will be detected, and involved parties will be reprimanded. Simply put, the only way to enforce academic integrity across the school is to adopt PBA.

In light of the technical benefits of PBA, it is crucial to also recognize the student benefits of adopting this testing model. At their core, multiple choice exams test students on fact recollection and foster a culture of “cramming”—last minute studying to memorize facts rather than understand content. While some educators may argue that memorizing content down to the finest details demonstrates depth of student understanding, this logic is inherently flawed: how is being able to recall the exact date of a battle an accurate assessment of what a student knows about a civilization at large? Is being able to name all 45 presidents in chronological order an indicator of a student’s knowledge of U.S. history? With PBA, students aren’t tested on fact recollection, but rather on fact application—a distinction that has been increasingly studied among researchers. Studies comparing learning outcomes for students taught via PBA versus traditional instruction show that—when implemented well—project-based learning increases long-term retention of content; helps students perform as well as, if not better than, traditional learners in high-stakes tests; strengthens problem-solving and collaboration skills; and improves students’ attitudes toward learning. Other studies draw similar conclusions, suggesting that PBA is not just a better assessment of student learning—it’s a better learning tool, too.

The appeal of PBA is clear. It is considerate of student obligations, accounts for educational inequity within online assessment, preserves academic integrity, and stimulates long-term retention of content. As the academic school year begins, educators should take these factors into consideration when designing their assessment models. Exams do not have to remain within course syllabi simply because they have traditionally been a part of the learning experience. Nothing about the current student educational experience is “traditional,” and the way that students demonstrate their learning should reflect that. Yes, an entirely PBA learning model is new, unconventional, and may be held in a skeptical light by educators. But if a system is flawed, the educational community has an obligation to fix it, and PBA is the solution.