Sammamish High School has seen statistically significant gains in AP test scores and AP test pass rates, as a result of redesigning curriculum and implementing problem-based learning (PBL), made possible by a $4.1 million federal grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Investing in Innovation (i3) program.

In September 2010, the school was awarded the grant for their proposal, “Re-imagining College and Career Readiness: STEM, Equity and Rigor in a Comprehensive High School.”  With a goal to implement PBL as a framework across all content areas, Sammamish teachers participated in PBL design teams to develop a PBL approach for the Bellevue School District curriculum.  In order to develop STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) proficiencies and increase student participation in STEM, Sammamish implemented PBL across departments and developed new engineering, science and social studies courses.

To successfully implement PBL, the school and its partners at the University of Washington’s Institute for Science and Math Education, led by Andy Shouse, who is now the Chief Program Officer at Washington STEM, created a document describing seven research-based Key Elements of PBL: authentic problems, authentic assessment, expertise, collaboration, academic discourse, student voice and leadership, and culturally responsive instruction.  Together, these Key Elements provided teachers, school leaders and students a common language to describe and define ambitious teaching and learning practices.

“The i3 grant provided our community with the resources needed to truly reimagine student learning and the role of the teacher in the 21st Century,” said Principal Tom Duenwald.  “I am very proud of the leadership, collaboration and professionalism demonstrated by the Sammamish teachers during, and now after the conclusion of the i3 grant.  This report captures the results of some of our earliest work with PBL, and there will be many opportunities to refine and further develop PBL.”

Nadya Chinoy Dabby, assistant deputy secretary for Innovation and Improvement said, “These results confirm what I saw firsthand when I visited Bellevue in 2015: a great example of how schools can better serve their students by becoming a hub for innovation.  The next step is for Bellevue schools to share their most successful strategies, so that students in Washington and across the nation benefit from what you are learning.”

Overall, students who experienced PBL curriculum in their AP coursework improved their scores on AP tests when compared to students who took the same or similar AP coursework before the school implemented PBL across content areas.  The data also suggests that the school’s PBL implementation positively impacted students’ college and career readiness outcomes.

Key Findings

  • Students who experienced redesigned PBL courses (treatment group) outperformed their matched peers in the pre-PBL comparison group on multiple AP tests. In some cases, student gains were statistically significant even when disaggregated according to students who receive free and reduced lunch (FRL), students with disabilities (SWD), and students who speak a first language other than English at home.
  • Overall, students in the treatment group passed a higher percentage of their AP tests and took more AP courses than their comparison, pre-PBL comparison group peers. AP course enrollment also increased significantly across the school.
  • When aggregated by academic department, students in the treatment group had higher AP mean scores than their comparison group peers on math, science, English and social studies exams. The gains in math, science, and social studies were statistically significant.
  • A strong, positive correlation exists between the number of PBL courses students take and student performance on AP tests.

As part of the PBL implementation, the school also redesigned their summer program Starting Strong, now known as Sammamish Leads.  The redesigned program gives students the ability to hone their ability to think creatively, work collaboratively, and gain valuable experience engaged with an authentic task in a profession, field or discipline.  The experience is especially valuable for students who may be the first in their family to attend college because it expands their career options, and could provide them with purpose as they navigate the college landscape.

Download SHS i3 Grant Findings Report