In a Danville Independent School District class, seventh-grader Emma Merryman and others recently worked with a local architect to build a model of what a McDonald's restaurant in ancient Mesopotamia might have looked like.
Emma and classmates at Bate Middle School had to learn about the culture, agriculture, government and architecture, "so all that would be implemented in what a McDonald's at the time would look like. They incorporated technology, they incorporated group learning, they incorporated research," said Emma's mother, Kathy Merryman.
It was the same concept several days earlier, when a Danville High School engineering class built bridge trusses with wood as students learned how trigonometry and engineering standards are used in the real world.
Danville Independent is leading the state in a concept called project-based learning, a model that requires students not only to learn content but to prove that they can apply it so they are prepared for college or a career.
It's a different kind of accountability system for schools, and Superintendent Carmen Coleman is not stopping there. With Kentucky Education Commissioner Terry Holliday's backing, Coleman is preparing to ask state and federal officials for permission to eliminate two standardized tests that she considers meaningless.
"They have to take them, but we do not put any emphasis on them," Coleman said.
"Our schools in so many ways have become about test prep. We've got to have kids graduating who can do more than respond to multiple-choice questions."
Her goal is to eliminate Kentucky Performance Rating for Educational Progress and end-of-course tests for high school students. Those tests would be replaced with tests that reflect project-based learning.
If Coleman's methods are successful, schools all over the state could follow her district, Holliday said.
"We wouldn't completely eliminate testing," but some tests might be eliminated "so we can put those funds toward more in-depth types of assessments that are project-based, like Danville," he said.
Coleman wants to keep one standardized test — the ACT — because it's required by many colleges as a measure of whether a student is ready for college or career.
Ultimately, she wants the district to be held accountable for how many students complete college.
Coleman said the district has doubled its test scores in terms of whether students are college- and career-ready. To be college-ready, students have to reach benchmarks. About 34 percent of the district's students reached that standard in 2011. In 2013, more than 70 percent reached that status, Coleman said.
But in Kentucky's current accountability system, Coleman said, Danville Independent is labeled as a "needs improvement" district. The overall scores have not reached the cutoff for proficiency status, she said.
"We knew that we would take hits ... and we have," she said.
Holliday said that's OK.
"I don't think the standardized test is always the ultimate measure," he said. "I think standardized tests are limited in their ability to measure the types of skills that the work force of the future will need. That's why I'm very supportive of their work, not backing away from accountability but looking for very different ways to measure student progress."
At Danville High School, principal Aaron Etherington said, "It's a challenge to find a traditional classroom where kids are sitting in rows, there's a teacher in the front of the room and there's direct instruction occurring."
Project-based learning "engages students in the work, students value the work, it allows us to teach the content and the application of the work," Etherington said.
Recently, students used math skills to build furniture out of cardboard boxes, fitting slots together with no adhesive. The test of whether students knew math skills and could apply them was whether the furniture would hold up when Coleman sat on it.
If all teachers do is prepare students for tests, students won't have the skills to be successful in the workplace or in college, Etherington said.
In the district, which has 1,800 students in three elementary schools, one middle school and one high school — the bar is high. Students are required to obtain what Coleman calls "the Danville diploma," which includes measures of success.
Teachers put a strong emphasis on skills needed in the workplace — such as perseverance and initiative, Coleman said.
"Can they think like a mathematician? Can they think like a scientist? Can students look at data and evaluate what is good and reliable versus what might not be?"
District officials are receiving mentoring from school districts in other states that have implemented project-based learning. Coleman wants every student to graduate with at least "one viable ticket in his or her pocket" that will lead to post-secondary success.
The Kentucky General Assembly recently created a program called Districts of Innovation to allow a few districts under state supervision to experiment in measuring student progress.
Danville and the other three districts — Eminence, Taylor County and Jefferson County — are not trying to back away from accountability but are attempting to have students demonstrate that they are college- and career-ready and that they are 21st-century thinkers.
Kathy Merryman said her daughter Emma recently had to build a simple machine and decide how she would market it, and her son Jack, a senior, will soon have to present what he has accomplished in his four years of high school. She said Coleman has "brought a ton of energy to our district."
Earlier in her career, Coleman, 43, was a teacher and principal in Scott County. In 2006, she went to work as elementary school director in Fayette County for then-superintendent Stu Silberman, whom she considers a mentor in innovative learning techniques. Four years ago, Coleman became Danville's superintendent.
"Carmen is a phenomenal leader who makes all decisions based on what is best for kids," said Silberman, now director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence.
Coleman said the district is learning as it implements the project-based model.
Andrew Groves, who teaches geometry, said, "We are all slowly learning as we dive into it."