Does offering test retakes help or enable students.....? | Edutopia
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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Does offering test retakes help or enable students.....?

Does offering test retakes help or enable students.....?

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I am teaching eighth grade science and working in a middle school setting for the first time. My school is big on students mastering material, as a result many teachers offer students the opportunity to retake tests/quizzes. At the beginning I did not offer my students that opportunity but then began to feel pressure from students colleagues, and parents. Of course, being new to the grade level and building, I caved! I want all my students to be successful but sometimes I feel like some of the students take advantage of the it. I personally am worried that it will set them up for future failure when they are not able to have such opportunities. Some students do better, some do worse, and some do the same. I do make them do corrections in order to do a retake but still some do terrible or don't come to see me for help. I also feel like parents and students are always looking for an exception, extra credit, etc. instead of working towards being better students, learning through consequences and preparing to be self-sufficient adults! I would love to hear input from other educators.

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Sid's picture

Who would you much rather hire: the budget director who takes 5 tries to get the budget right or the budget director who gets it right first time?

On a more personal level: Which surgeon would you prefer for open heart surgery? The surgeon who makes a few mistakes first time and has to give you a second operation one month later, or the surgeon who aces your heart operation first time?

Do people wonder why there are discussions about grade inflation?

It is true that taking similar tests repeatedly will help you improve on taking a test. Just as with any other task, experience counts. Perhaps a better way to assess learners it to give mock exams, that are graded just for informative purposes, or whose value is only a minuscule portion of the final class grade. This helps remove the variable of "anxiety and unfamiliarity about the test format" from the exam.

Lynn Brown's picture

What you suggest in your last paragraph seems closer to what I understand many of the folks here expressing when they support retakes. Not all tests are alike, they are not all "summative". At some point, students need to take summative assessments to see if they have learned the material sufficiently to be granted a status of mastery over the subject matter. But many more tests are formative assesments, designed to tell the teacher as well as the student where they are in their current mastery of a subject. Learning is by definition expanding one's base of knowledge. To expand knowledge one must discover one's limits. To discover one's limits, one must fail.

Do we only value what we already know? Or can we value the effort needed to go back, assess one's efforts, and improve upon it? That shows growth. Would I rather trust my heart to one who feels there is more to learn, to grow, or one who believes they already know it all?

Which brings me to the analogies that open the post: No budget director gets the budget "right" on their first effort. Despite great expertise, many budget directors get it "wrong" after many tries. Lots of doctors get stuff wrong as well. So do mechanics, plumbers, electricians, teachers, politicians, CEO's and CFO's. And As they develop their expertise, they make even more mistakes. But they review mistakes made, assesses their limitations, and address them. Formative assessment. Thats why I value retakes.

Beth Ellis's picture
Beth Ellis
Fourth grade teacher

Our district uses standards based grading and in most subjects, 75-95% counts as "proficient." If a student is not proficient on a standard, they are required to come in for some extra support and then to be reassessed on that particular standard. The expectation is that this will lead to mastery. This philosophy seems to be working well for the vast majority of students, but does not give much incentive for the very capable students to go above and beyond the level of "proficient." When 76% counts exactly the same as 94%, it's hard to see why they would!

Sid's picture

"To discover one's limits, one must fail." -- I asked myself what this means, and I can only conclude that this is an empty cliche. Few if any of us are really trying to discover our limits; few if any of us are trying to make students discover their limits. Or at least I know I don't. Instead we are all trying to extend our knowledge and abilities.

"To expand knowledge one must discover one's limits." -- This is maybe closer to what we all try to achieve, but again this is another cliche that is somewhat vacuous. Expanding our knowledge doesn't have to do with "discovering" our limits. Instead we expand our knowledge by having questions to which we don't know the answers. To extend knowledge we have to ask the right questions, and have the stamina to pursue the answers to their logical conclusions. It does not have to do with failing tests! Failing a test in history does not expand knowledge. Failing a test in algebra does not expand knowledge.

"And As they develop their expertise, they make even more mistakes." -- This seems to me to be tautologically false, but of course I could be at such a high level of expertise in logic that I am now making even more logical mistakes than I used to do.

At the risk of oversimplification, educational institutions are in the business of producing certificates (or graduates with certificates). Certificates (grades, transcripts and what have you) are precisely what they mean: they certify the bearer's level of proficiency. A company hiring a graduate would (and should) pay more for an A student than a C student because mistakes take time to rectify and cost a company money. It is not to say that no one makes mistakes in the real world, but making fewer mistakes is clearly more desirable.

Using tests for formative assessments usurps the role that homework has traditionally occupied. When everyone can retake a test till they get an A, it devalues a certificate, and that indirectly penalized good students.

Samantha's picture
6th grade special education teacher in Phoenix, Arizona.

For students who value their education and aspire to achieve A's or Exceeds on a standard, re-take assessments are great. It allows students to strive to learn what mistakes they made, and learn from them. For students who don't really care, re-taking tests doesn't mean as much.
As for me, I use re-take assessments to check for growth after re-teaching a standard. If I see many students did not master the standard, I will re-teach and re-test to see if students gained more knowledge or a greater concept of the standard being taught. I like the idea of re-take testing if used in a useful way.

Darlene Pope's picture
Darlene Pope
8th Grade Social Studies teacher & Dept. Chair, AVID Coordinator

Mastery learning and grade inflation are rooted in different educational philosophies. In mastery learning the higher scores by all students becomes the goal. It is not a "gotcha" scenario, but more of a "we got your back scenario". Mastery learning is not a set goal. When the vast majority of students have mastery it is time to raise the bar and introduce greater rigor and complexity. The classroom is a laboratory for learning and mistakes are part of the process. Essential equipment in mastery learning is the ability to retake tests and revise projects. I would argue that this is real world. When all students are given the opportunity to practice rigor, when they can not escape that practice by an F, where failure is seen as part of the process, that to me is real life.

Lynn Brown's picture

"Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better." - Samuel Beckett
Risking vacuity...You're extending knowledge without dealing with limits? Interesting...
I agree that questioning is the engine. But what's with making limits and questions either/or? Every choice an artist makes (I'm a teaching artist) is a response to a question of some kind...some are conscious; some are too slippery for that. Artists unmask the questions that our previous answers have hidden. James Baldwin said that I think.
Re-reading my post I see where you might get the impression that I was equating failure alone as adequate for growth. My fault. Vacuous cliche alert... Its not what you say, its what is heard. Guess what? I just used formative assessment (your post) to revisit my work. Here comes the revision...
I am advocating for students who failed a test the chance to revisit that test, and to learn from their mistakes. Maybe they don't get the full value for the work. But I I want to emphasize grasping an understanding, not simply facility. And as a side thought, might someone who blows a test, but who displays understanding through reworking and revision of mistakes just might "own" the material in a way that someone who didn't have to work too hard to pass does not? One had their limits pushed, the other not. Plenty of lawyers need more than one shot at the bar exam. Does it demean the practice of law? (Insert your own joke here)
I'm curious about how formative assessment usurps homework. Could you say more about that?
Finally, would you like to reflect on this Certificate thing? If that's the big reason I'm doing this, I'm out
I leave with sage words from Tommy Lasorda. I'm not a Dodger fan, but I'm into baseball He summed it up pretty well. "Nothing succeeds -like failure"

Greg Prater's picture

I would rather hire the person who can persevere. I would the person who can maybe not always get everything right the first time and can learn from theri mistakes. Your argument assumes that the person will always get everything right the first time they face it.

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Online Community Manager

Hi Greg, I just wanted to point out that this piece was originally posted in 2010, so it's unlikely the folks involved in the conversation are still following.

Personally, I agree with you--after almost 30 years working, I'd much rather hire the person who can learn from their mistakes.

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