This article by Amadou Diallo in The Hechinger Report describes schools in Philadelphia that rely on project based learning rather than standardized testing. Unlike many such articles, it acknowledges the differences between schools with selective admissions and those that accept all applicants.

A snippet:

An unqualified success for these new schools would be results like those at Science Leadership Academy, a magnet school that is home to the district’s longest-running project-based learning program, which opened in 2006. The school combines rigorous research with student-driven projects that have impact beyond the school building. One student project involved putting on a city-wide Ultimate Frisbee tournament. In the 2016-17 school year, 99 percent of its seniors graduated, and 84 percent attended college immediately afterward. Algebra, Biology and English literature proficiency scores at the school are more than double the district high school average.

“Projects are really hard, collaboration is really hard.”

“As a magnet school,” said Science Leadership Academy principal Chris Lehmann, “we need to be able to prove that the learning we engage in here shows up on the test … without falling into a teach-for-the-test problem. It’s a balancing act. It always has been.”

It may prove difficult for other schools to replicate Science Leadership Academy’s performance, however. As a magnet school, it has selective admissions and attracts students from a wider range of socioeconomic backgrounds (fewer than half its students receive free or reduced-price lunch, for example) than the city’s other project-based learning schools.

Lehmann acknowledges the inherent advantages at a school that’s able to choose its students — applicants must meet minimum grade requirements and sit for an interview — but, like his counterparts at Philadelphia’s nonselective project-based learning schools, he argues that we need to be taking a more holistic view of school performance. “How you judge a school is an incredibly nuanced thing,” he said. “The way that we take care of each other and the way that we learn are intertwined.” There may not be a quantitative metric to assess whether students are being provided with meaningful work in an environment that lets them know they are cared for, but Lehmann believes that without those components, grades and test scores become an end unto themselves.

“There’s no [statewide] assessment for being able to look people in the eye and speak clearly.”
Vaux Big Picture High School principal Gabriel Kuriloff

Tamir Harper is an 18-year-old senior at Science Leadership Academy whose passion is education reform: In 2017 he founded a nonprofit that advocates for quality urban education. He says that when he arrived at the school he was obsessed with grades. “I just wanted to know ‘How can I get an A?’ I didn’t care if I was learning, or comprehending,” he said. “Now I’m a student that wants to learn, and I don’t worry about the end result [grade]. I’m into the process.” He says a big part of that shift was the relationships he forged at school. “We’re not just project-based, we’re a community-driven school,” he said.

Fellow senior Madison Militello, 18, says her middle school was very strict, with no room for individual connections. “Here I don’t feel like the teachers are above me. I feel like we’re on the same level,” she said, noting that she’s still close with some teachers even though she doesn’t have their classes anymore. “You can’t teach a group of students you don’t have a connection with.”

That sentiment was a common refrain at Vaux, LINC and Workshop, each of which offer slightly different approaches to project-based learning in underserved communities. Educators at each are confident that the skills their students are acquiring — collaboration, critical thinking and problem-solving — will eventually manifest themselves in improved results on more traditional metrics like math and reading tests. More importantly, however, they believe that students will be much more prepared for the real world when they leave school. Whether project-based learning done on a larger scale can turn the tide in Philadelphia is another question.

“You can create the perfect school model and it’s still not going to solve American poverty,” Hauger said. “We’re moving the needle for every child who comes through the door and sometimes that doesn’t feel like enough.”