I have often found that many students underperform on traditional tests. They may know the material, they may work hard and be able to explain things in class, and they may even study, but when faced with a traditional, individual, silent testing environment, their stress and anxiety get the better of them and they freeze up.
As a result, I’ve been looking for alternative ways to have students demonstrate mastery, especially for my English Language Learner class, because they seem to particularly struggle with traditional tests.
This post is the first in a two-part series about an extremely exciting and positive experience I had while implementing one type of alternative assessment: the shuffle test. Not only is a shuffle test a great way for all students to access and demonstrate mastery of challenging content, it also has the added benefit of being a very effective status intervention.
In this post, I’ll discuss the mechanics of a shuffle test and talk about my experience implementing it. In the next post, I’ll go more into the pedagogy of why this is a powerful tool to promote equity in the classroom.
What is a Shuffle Test?
- Students are randomly assigned to groups
- It’s important that the groups are visibly random!
- The test itself consists of a small number of rich, challenging problems
- Each student submits their own written solutions for an individual grade
- Each group receives a collective group grade for an oral exam in which students explain the group’s solution to one of the questions
Some Important Points
Because the students are working in groups, the questions can and should be more difficult than those you would give to students on an individual test.
A key part of the shuffle test is the group grade for the oral exam. Traditionally, for the oral exam portion of a shuffle test you randomly choose one student to explain the group’s solution to one of the test’s questions. This means that all students need to ensure that all group members understand each problem on the test fully. This forces them to work together and support each other.
I actually did the oral exam portion of the shuffle test a little bit differently than the “one student at random answers for the group” model that I originally learned about. When I first learned about shuffle tests, I saw a video of an oral exam. In the video, after one student in the group was randomly selected to explain the group’s solution, one of the other group members pretty much checked out since they were now “off the hook”.
To mitigate this, I had students take turns explaining their group’s solution. I used equity cards to randomly select who would start explaining. When a student was selected, they were the only one in the group allowed to talk. After they had talked for a bit, I would use the cards to randomly select another group member to pick up the explanation where their colleague had left off. This forced all students to pay careful attention during the oral exam because they knew that they would be the one explaining at any minute.
My Experience: What Went Well
Really, the impetus to write this blog post was that I needed to share how shockingly sublime my classroom was during the shuffle test. I have developed a pretty decent culture of collaboration and group work in my classes, but it (like most things) is imperfect – a perpetual work in progress that requires constant vigilance and upkeep on my part.
The day of the shuffle test, however, was truly a dream come true: after I reviewed the procedure and expectations for the shuffle test, kids got into their groups and immediately started working together. They found the questions to be really challenging, but they just buckled down on working through them together rather than asking me anything. I think that by calling it a “test”, they more easily internalized the notion that they should rely on each other rather than me.
I spent a significant amount of time casually milling about the room, subtly eavesdropping on their phenomenal discussions and making mental notes to myself, but really, my presence was not necessary for the excellent math thinking and learning that they were doing.
In one of my classes, I had been worried because a student who is a bit of a … *character* … had been absent for several preceding classes and had missed some of the key material on the test. I was worried that this student might act out as a defense mechanism (as was often the case), and that their group members would get frustrated and turn on them.
What actually happened was the exact opposite: this student was the most engaged I’ve seen all year, and worked really hard to pull their weight in the group. The other group members – including a super high-achieving, high-status student who always needs everyone to know that they’re right – responded by helping this student with the material they had missed, and welcoming them into the group.
My Experience: What Could Have Gone Better
The test that I gave was too long for one period. While some groups almost finished on day one, others were only about halfway done. I had suspected that I might need to budget two days for this, but there were some definite downsides to continuing into a second day.
The most fundamental downside was that students lost a sense of momentum and focus that they had had on day one. While the class still went well on the second day, with kids mostly on-task and working together on the math, that idyllic classroom utopia that I described above had returned a bit to its normal, human (and thus flawed) state.
Additionally, I had several kids who were out on a field trip, which messed up the groups. Even worse, my Geometry classes are at the end of the day, so as the field trip ended and students started to arrive back at school (at different times depending on the metro train their field trip group had caught), they trickled back into the class, forcing me to rearrange the groups several times.
My goal for the next shuffle test is to have it be short enough that every group at least finishes their written solutions in one class period. While it would be ideal to do all of the oral exams in the period as well, I think that as long as students have answered every question and written up all of their solutions, it wouldn’t be too hard to have groups come after school or at lunch to complete their oral exam.
In my second post on shuffle tests, I discuss some objections to using shuffle tests (from both students and teachers), as well as more of the pedagogical theory behind why shuffle tests are a powerful way to promote equity in the classroom.