Teachers at Bellevue’s Sammamish High School led a five-year, schoolwide change that increased participation in challenging courses without sacrificing test scores.

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About six years ago, Sammamish High School teachers decided to take a risky departure from how they had been teaching — providing fewer lectures and more opportunities for students to work together applying what they were learning to real-world problems.

The teachers hoped the hands-on approach would make learning more relevant and memorable, and help more students succeed in challenging classes.

They started with a few college-level, Advanced Placement (AP) courses, in a partnership with the University of Washington, and got such promising results that those classes have now expanded to several other school districts.

Since then, they’ve redesigned (and, in a few cases, built from scratch) a total of 35 courses, hoping all students would benefit from solving meaningful problems rather than just cramming for tests — essentially emphasizing depth over breadth.

A new 160-page, independent evaluation of their work — which included surveys and group interviews of teachers and students, classroom observations and analysis of tests scores — shows they were right.

The payoff was even better than the teachers expected: Not only did students taking the redesigned AP courses do as well on the year-end AP tests as students taught the traditional way, in many cases they did better.

“I think the school would have been happy if there would have been no change, but to find positive change was really a pleasant surprise for them,” said Randy Knuth, the lead author of the five-year study of the project required by the grant.

Knuth also noted that the gains were found throughout the school, not just in a class here or there.

While it’s not uncommon for a department within a school to try what’s called problem-based learning, not many schools have tried to use it in every grade and subject like Sammamish did, Knuth said.

And the effort is also an example of how teachers can dramatically change their school from the ground up.

“We’re not hiring a new staff, we’re using who we’ve got,” said Sammamish science teacher Suzanne Reeve, who helped lead the effort. “We’re not getting rid of the union. We’re not becoming a magnet and attracting different kids. We are who we are.”

What it looks like

On a recent morning at Sammamish, an assignment in one of Keith Onstot’s science classes demonstrated what problem-based learning looks like.

He gave his ninth-grade biochemistry students a mission: Create a solution of water, sugar and salt that could rehydrate an athlete on the school’s track team, revive a dehydrated grandmother or save the life of a baby with severe diarrhea in a remote village.

He joked that anyone who made him throw up tasting their results would get an automatic zero.

On the count of three, student Edward Chien and his lab partners knocked back shots of their salt, sugar and water concoction.

Immediately, they raced to the sink to spit it out: too salty!

But they’d actually gotten it right — Onstot told Chien that the correct balance of salts and sugars boosts the flow of water into the bloodstream, but it tastes horrible.

Chien said he likes solving problems like this one.

“Instead of just reading from the textbook and reading examples, you get to make the examples,” he said.

His lab partner, Kathleen Nguyen, agreed.

“Everything is more clear,” she said. “You have partners who can explain things to you. You learn from your mistakes.”

Most diverse school

A $4 million federal grant fueled the change at Sammamish, which is the most diverse of Bellevue’s high schools, with 46 languages spoken among its students.

The teachers wanted to help more of their students succeed in Advanced Placement classes — which has been a goal of the entire Bellevue School District since the mid-1990s.

In some ways, it was the teachers’ answer to a district initiative they didn’t like — the daily lesson plans for each grade and subject that teachers were expected to follow, one of the main reasons teachers went on strike in 2008.

That same year, a small group of frustrated government teachers at Sammamish and other Bellevue high schools began working with researchers at the University of Washington to redesign the first AP class, AP Government.

The new approach to AP, featured in a Seattle Times Education Lab story, has since expanded to Seattle; Oakland, Calif.; Des Moines, Iowa; and most recently, Chicago.

Then Sammamish sought and received the federal grant to expand that approach throughout the school, with help from the University of Washington, Microsoft and other outside experts.

Most of the $4 million grant money was spent paying substitutes and other staff to cover teachers’ regular classes while they worked together designing courses and learning more about the problem-centered approach.

“It was locally owned and it was locally driven,” Reeve said. “A top-down mandate would not work.”

Social-studies teachers embraced the changes first, partly because they were already familiar with them through the AP Government class.

It took the science teachers a few years to figure out what it should look like in their classes, but the timing was right for them because the AP Biology exam had recently been rewritten to test students’ problem-solving skills.

And the results on the AP Biology test were among the most impressive for the school, Knuth said. About 33 percent of the students who took that test passed, 14 percentage points higher than under the more traditional instructional approach.

The school’s math and English teachers haven’t been as enthusiastic.

Math teachers, for example, worried that spending time applying math to real-world situations might mean they didn’t cover material that would appear on the exam students had to pass to graduate. And it was tough to find meaningful problems that didn’t overtax their students’ math abilities.

But tackling a meaningful problem is only one of seven key elements that guided the Sammamish teachers’ efforts. For example, they also want students to work together, speak up for themselves, and take charge of their own learning — goals the math teachers chose to emphasize.

Some teachers in the English department tried to incorporate different elements, but for the most part, they concluded they already were having success with the way they were teaching literature, Knuth said.

Adrienne Dickinson, one of the AP government teachers who initially worked with UW on the redesign, said she is particularly happy that the AP test scores held, which is helping show AP teachers in other parts of the country that they can take a chance on students who might not seem ready for the advanced material.

“They’re so hyper-focused on their scores and they’re so afraid of letting kids in,” Dickinson said.

With the grant money now gone, Sammamish is trying to figure out how it can keep going.

It sought, but did not win, a second federal grant — although that was before the school had data showing the AP test score gains, which would have strengthened the school’s application.

Principal Tom Duenwald said the school is hoping to work out agreements with companies, nonprofits and other outside partners to keep the momentum going.

And while some teachers don’t like the approach, 85 percent said in a survey that they would use it in the future.

“To me, that’s a pretty big success indicator,” Knuth said.