Shuffle Tests: An Alternative Assessment to Combat Status (Part 2 of 2)

This is the second post in a two-part series about shuffle tests. In the first post, I discussed what a shuffle test is, as well as some of the successes and failures I experienced implementing a shuffle test in my classroom.

In this post, I will discuss some objections to the very notion of a shuffle test. I will also go into greater depth as to why this alternative assessment is a powerful tool to promote equity and combat status in the classroom.

Objections to the Concept of a Shuffle Test

In implementing a shuffle test in my classroom, I encountered two objections. One came from a student, one from a teacher.

A few of my higher-achieving students objected to the fact that their oral exam grade on a shuffle test would be dependent upon whether or not a classmate understands the material. My response to this was two-fold:

  1. Communicating clearly is an important part of doing mathematics, so part of what I’m assessing with this test is the ability of everyone in the group to explain math clearly to their classmates.
  2. My goal is for you to succeed, and the oral exam is not a “gotcha” test. If someone in a group isn’t able to explain a problem or answer my questions, I will simply say, without judgment, “it looks like this group isn’t ready yet,” and walk away to give you more time to discuss the problem. I’ll return again when you’re ready.

This response satisfied students’ initial concerns, and I didn’t hear any other complaints.

The objection from the teacher standpoint is that a shuffle test is not as rigorous an assessment as a traditional test. Here are my thoughts on that:

  1. The oral exam component provides accountability to ensure that students aren’t just mindlessly copying from the “smart” kid in the group.
  2. This test serves a dual purpose: it is a test, but it is also a status intervention. Thus, you cannot look at its benefit to the classroom purely through the lens of its ability to measure student understanding. It is also a profound way to get ALL students collaborating on and persevering through challenging problems.

This is Deeper than Just an Alternative Assessment

It’s worth exploring a bit more that second point above: a shuffle test is fundamentally a status intervention.

If you’re unfamiliar with the notion of status, I highly recommend reading everything that Ilana (Lani) Horn has ever written. Lani is a researcher at Vanderbilt who studies equitable teaching. She identifies a key problem that hinders student learning: status, which she defines as, “the perception of students’ academic capability and social desirability.”

As Lani notes, “The word perception is key to this definition.” Students who perceive themselves as “good at math” don’t always want to listen to or value ideas from their peers whom they perceive as being “bad at math”. Similarly, students who have struggled for years in math often don’t feel like they have anything valuable to add to the conversation.

Lani has discussed many status interventions, such as establishing and maintaining norms, assigning competence, broadening students’ definition of “smartness” in math class, and visibly random groupings. I have also written on the importance and ease of using visibly random groups.

The status interventions listed above are primarily focused on the culture around everyday classroom tasks and activities. As wonderful as it is to promote positive interdependence among students during class with these status interventions, these interventions should not just be relegated to classroom activities, but should also include assessments. As Lani points out, “Assessment is one of the most powerful ways teachers communicate their values to students” (Strength in Numbers, p. 56).

Lani discusses shuffle quizzes as an example of what “Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam and their colleagues refer to … as assessment for learning“. That is, the primary purpose of the assessment is not to evaluate students, but rather, to promote their learning (Strength in Numbers, p. 56).

This was definitely the case in my classroom. This was the first question on my shuffle test:

Screen Shot 2017-03-18 at 1.51.30 PM

We had worked with composite figures before, but I had never given students a question in which “cutting out” part of a shape decreased its area but increased its perimeter.

Some groups were able to handle this entirely on their own, but I noticed others in which all of the students were leaving incorrect answers to the perimeter and moving on to the next question. There were two ways this was happening:

  1. They only added the straight parts of the shaded region’s perimeter.
  2. They treated perimeter like area: they found the total perimeter of the rectangle, then subtracted away 14 cm for the dotted lines.

For these groups, I intervened by asking the following two questions:

  1. What does perimeter mean?
  2. Trace for me with your pencil or finger the perimeter of the shaded region.

These two questions were enough to trigger a lightbulb moment in at least one student in each group. Additionally, I think that every student’s memory of that lightbulb moment will be much stronger than it would have been if I had “taught” them how to do this type of problem through direct instruction, since they struggled and thought about this funky perimeter for a significant and sustained period of time before finally seeing how the perimeter needs to be treated as fundamentally different than the area.

When Lani discusses assessments for learning and the research behind them by Black, Wiliam, et al., it is primarily in the context of formative assessments that will guide the teacher’s future instruction.

I used my shuffle test as an end-of-unit summative assessment, and I was very happy with its ability to serve that purpose. That being said, after seeing the incredibly rich mathematical thinking and discussion that my students engaged in during the shuffle test, I definitely want to try to incorporate this more frequently as a formative tool in my classroom.

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