Learning Strategies

Studies Show 21st Century Learning Approaches Can Boost Standardized Test Scores

As more and more K-12 schools across the country adopt 21st century learning techniques, educators, administrators and parents are demanding to see hard evidence that such methods actually increase students' academic success - particularly on standardized tests. After all, the pressure to perform on standardized tests is enormous. These scores often determine whether or not a student graduates, teachers retain their positions or a school's doors remain open. Given the risks, it is tempting for educators to stick to more traditional, lecture-based approaches that impart a high amount of information during each lesson in a passive way. However, recent research suggests that the project-based and student-centered approaches of 21st century learning can positively impact students' scores on standardized tests. Below are three research cases that illustrate this.

Case 1: Science instruction in a large urban school

In a partnership between the University of Michigan and Detroit Public Schools, researchers tracked the progress of two groups of middle school students; one receiving science instruction through an inquiry-based curriculum and the second through traditional methods. The inquiry-based curriculum challenged students to answer three questions throughout the term about air and water quality in their community and bike helmet safety. Educators using the inquiry-based curriculum took part in specific professional development to teach each of these units. The seventh and eighth graders in the inquiry-based group tackled their projects using a blended learning approach that incorporated the use of software applications that supplemented their interactions with teachers and peers. This study involved approximately 5,000 students and 37 educators across 18 schools.

At the end of the term, students in the inquiry-based group showed significantly greater pass-rates on the Michigan Educational Assessment Program (MEAP), a statewide standardized test that assesses science achievement. This occurred in two different groups in two different terms. Additionally, a narrower gender gap was found in standardized test scores for the students who experienced the inquiry-based approach.

Case 2: Social studies instruction in a rural school district

This study followed the progress of students from a rural middle school who opted into two different high schools based on interest and a lottery. One high school dedicated its curriculum to project-based learning, while the other followed traditional methods. The schools were located less than a mile from each other.

Over the course of this study, which took place in 2008, 2009, and 2010, students in the project-based learning school achieved significantly greater pass-rates on the tenth grade state-mandated exam of social studies achievement. The differences were quite large-in 2008, the pass rate difference was as high as 26 percentage points (70% in the traditional school vs. 96% in the PBL school). In 2009, the difference was 23 points (74% vs. 97%), and in 2010, the difference was 11 points (88% vs. 99%).

Case 3: Economics instruction in Arizona and California high schools

This research proposed that students would develop more useful economic knowledge if their curriculum asked them to solve economic problems akin to those they find in the real world. The 35 instructors who facilitated the problem-based learning approach all chose to receive professional development so they could best facilitate this learning method. The other 29 instructors continued to teach economics according to their typical methods. In all, 2,502 students in schools across Arizona and California experienced the problem-based instruction and 1,848 were instructed under their teachers' unchanged methods.

Results of this research strongly favored the problem-based approach. When the standardized Test of Economic Literacy was administered to both groups, the students who received the problem-based method showed significantly higher test scores. Moreover, they showed significantly greater problem-solving skills in economics, measured by expert evaluations of written responses to questions that examined conceptual understanding. Teachers also reaped the benefits of the problem-based learning approach. Even though educators in both groups showed similar aptitudes for economics (by way of scores on the Test of Economic Literacy), those who led the problem-based groups gave higher satisfaction ratings of their teaching methods and materials.

Geier, Robert; Blumenfeld, Phyllis C.; Marx, Ronald W.; Krajcik, Joseph S.; Fishman, Barry; Soloway, Elliot; Clay-Chambers, Juanita (2008). Standardized Test Outcomes for Students Engaged in Inquiry-Based Curricula in the Context of Urban Reform.

Summers, Emily & Dickenson, Gail. (2012). A Longitudinal Investigation of Project-based Instruction and Student Achievement in High School Social Studies.

Finkelstein, Neal; Hanson, Thomas; Huang, Chun-Wei; Hirschman, Becca; & Huang, Min. (2010). Effects of Problem Based Economics on high school economics instruction.

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