Assessments such as exhibitions and internships are intrinsically authentic but are few and far between. They embody choice, collaboration, and are formative in nature—all characteristics that I believe are the linchpins of learning. I long for that same level of engagement on a weekly basis. Inspired by the recent presidential debates and a mock election project organized by the 11th grade students at our school, I recently offered three options for my weekly formative assessment (hereafter called the “quiz”). After reviewing the quiz questions, students could choose to take it as “Independents,” “Republicans,” or “Democrats.”
“Independents” took the quiz without notes or collaborative assistance. To reward the extra difficulty of this option, whatever grade they received would be bumped up by one letter grade. “Republicans” were allowed to discuss with other “Republicans” the questions and share strategies (but not write anything down or use calculators) for 15 minutes. After this, they took the quiz independently and without notes. Whatever grade they received they could feel confident they had earned, no more and no less. “Democrats” were allowed to collaborate and use notes throughout the test. However, their grade would be the average of the “Democrats” as a whole. Everyone had to turn in their work and I would average their individual grades for the group grade. I should mention that the quiz was designed to be challenging even with notes. All questions were free response and most required synthesis and abstraction.
I should also note that in asking students to select a political party, I did not (and do not) claim to represent the complex ideologies of these voter groups. The intent was to simply observe the different approaches students would choose in preparing and taking a test. The labels themselves were convenient and current, given that many of my senior students were preparing to vote for the first time in the upcoming election. Both the students and I understood that the complexities of party ideology can hardly be represented in a simple assessment option. Furthermore, no attempt was made (or hopefully implied) to associate a student’s choice with their actual political preferences. Any overlap was coincidental and irrelevant to the exercise. Nor did I observe any politically oriented banter among the students. They seemed to recognize the experiment for what it was.
The traditionally lower performing students tended to opt for the democratic option. The highest performing students gravitated towards the “Independents.” I wasn’t surprised that the highest scores were among the “Independents” but interestingly, so were the lowest. The “Republicans” scored about the same as the “Independents” on average but when they misunderstood something, they seemed to misunderstand as a group. I suspect they were sidetracked by influential, but incorrect opinions that weren’t corrected by a group vetting process. Thus, if a trusted source had a misunderstanding, the whole group missed the question.
On average, the “Democrats” took about twice as long to complete the quiz, but they performed better than either of the other groups, by a full letter grade. I observed that they questioned each other more. Their strategies and answers varied—a lot. By any objective standard, these were the lowest performing students in the class. Their questioning, however, was their strength. Everyone had to be convinced before they adopted a solution.
The testing atmosphere dynamics were fascinating. The “Democrats” quickly found that a test-by-committee approach was inefficient. They broke into smaller groups that then crosschecked their results. The “Independents” were both the most vociferous and the most subdued. One moment they crowed their prowess and the next were pleading for hints. The “Republicans” were—dare I say it—all business. Polite discussion followed by nose-to-the-grindstone focus.
The distribution of the twenty students into parties was about even: five “Independents,” eight “Republicans,” and seven “Democrats.” There was one particularly poignant moment when a student chose “Republicans” because she didn’t want to bring down the grade of the “Democrats” by having to average her grade in. An unintended but pleasant consequence: once the “Democrats” had reached consensus, grading was trivial. In the end, I suggested the “Democrats” turn in just one test to represent everyone. Their choice of student shocked me. Two days ago, he would have not been able to contribute anything. He had given up on that week’s lab and only under duress had agreed to spend an hour after school to shore up his understanding—from worst to first in 24 hours. Not only had his effort paid off, but the recognition of his peers was an ego shot in the arm he’ll likely never forget.
I have never seen students work so hard for so long on a test. The “Democrats” skipped break all together and used the whole 2 hours—productively! It may not have been a rigorously authentic assessment like a public exhibition, but it walked, swam, and quacked like the real thing. Afterward, the students were exhausted. Those that had arrived unprepared learned a lot about thermochemistry. And everyone learned something about what they can do to be successful.
After this inaugural party-line quiz, I wondered if they would choose differently a second time. The next time, the entire class chose to be “Democrats” except for two “Independents” and no “Republicans.” When it comes to grades, political ideologies are subordinate to exploitable loopholes. Not to be outmaneuvered, I countered by deducting a letter grade from the “Democrats” average score reasoning that the price for coming into the test unprepared was a limit on their grade—the best the “Democrats” could do was a 90%. Conversely, the “Independents” were rewarded for their preparation with a potential grade of 110%. With this change, the class split 50/50 into “Independents” and “Democrats.” It’s as though the students needed a clear incentive to get engaged—either benefiting from others or from an inflated grade. They had no interest in an option without an upside (in this case, “Republicans”).
So, what are my take-home lessons? The trickiest part is preparing an assessment that is challenging to a student using notes and yet not so difficult that an “Independent” without notes is overwhelmed. It also helps if the “Democrats” can be isolated. Their rambunctious banter is distracting to the “Republicans” and “Independents.” At this writing, I continue to reach across the aisle to find that consensus middle ground that maximizes engagement. I’m thinking an electoral college. I can hardly wait for mid-term elections.
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