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An Illustration depicting students taking tests
©Daniel Haskett / Ikon Images

Allowing Test Retakes—Without Getting Gamed

Hundreds of teachers discussed the best ways to guide students toward mastery—without being taken advantage of.

April 25, 2019

Debates about exam grades and retaking tests tend to coalesce, eventually, around the same arguments. One faction prioritizes subject mastery, the idea that it’s more important to get students to take incremental steps towards proficiency than to punish them with bad grades. The other side emphasizes personal responsibility, insisting that there are very few second chances in life, and that regular opportunities to retake tests simply teach kids that consequences are negotiable.

But in a recent Facebook and Twitter poll about whether our teachers allow makeup tests, the discussion took a more practical turn. Most teachers agreed that retesting was sometimes appropriate, but expressed concerns about setting clear limits around the practice. A widespread problem: When given the option of makeup tests, students often gamed the system, failing the initial exam to see what it looked like—and then simply regurgitating the correct answers later. Under those circumstances, it’s a net-zero game: Neither subject mastery nor personal responsibility is achieved.

“This has backfired on me so many times,” lamented teacher Misty McClaskey in a comment that drew hundreds of sympathetic reactions from our audience. “Students don’t study more. They do just as bad or worse on the retake. That’s a waste of my time and theirs. And I have found if they know a retake is available, they actually study and prepare less.”

Still, teachers weren’t giving up on mastery or on makeup tests, and clear solutions emerged in the course of the back-and-forth. A consensus emerged around some key guidelines for retesting:

  • Consider partial credit: It remains controversial, but most teachers withheld full credit for retakes—though a wide range of standards for partial credit emerged. Some averaged the two grades, while others established a maximum possible score. An interesting wrinkle: a few teachers replaced the initial grade with the newly earned grade, even if it went down.
  • Make parents aware of the retake: Dozens of educators suggested looping in parents when retakes were requested by students. In some cases, teachers asked students and parents to cosign contracts setting out the terms of the retesting.
  • Keep the rest of the class on track: Don’t slow the march of progress in your classroom to accommodate students who need to retest—unless the exam reveals a broad lack of mastery. Instead, most teachers conduct reteaching and retesting during study halls or before or after school.
  • Don’t give the same test: Yes, it imposes more work on the teacher, but our educators agreed that if you’re going to allow retesting, the second test should be different from the original—and just as challenging.
  • Require students to relearn: Students often fail tests because they haven’t put in the work to master the material. Retakes should not be another spin of the roulette wheel—students who want another shot should demonstrate that they’ve made a genuine effort to study.
  • Don’t assume all subjects are the same: In subjects like foreign languages and math, which rely heavily on sequential skill building, the need for retakes is crucial. Prohibiting retesting can strand students at a critical juncture with no good way to recover. Allow retakes and use the guidelines above.

Finally, a few of our teachers suggested more comprehensive approaches to retesting that seemed to work—and garnered lots of follow-up questions from experienced teachers looking for tried-and-true methods to use in their classrooms.

Mastery Quizzes

It takes some extra teacher time—most of these retesting alternatives do—but math teacher Laura Kirschenbaum offers what she calls “mastery quizzes,” which are tailored specifically to “what the students failed to master on the original exam.” These quizzes are short, often consisting of only two to four questions, and can help students earn back up to half the points they lost on the original test.

An advantage of this strategy? Students are retested only on what they didn’t know. As Kirschenbaum explains, “It seems silly to retest them on topics they already understand.”

Reflective Test Corrections

In Christina Gregory’s eighth-grade math class, students are required to reflect on, and write about, the questions they miss on tests. Marked exams are returned with the correct answers, and students then “explain the process they went through” to arrive at their incorrect answers, identify their mistakes and show how they affected the outcome, and share how they intend to “correct this misconception or mistake on future questions.”

According to Gregory—who received dozens of enthusiastic responses and questions from interested  teachers—these “reflective responses” are about one paragraph long and have several clear benefits: They show students that so-called bad answers are often just a simple, correctable glitch in their processing; they reduce math anxiety by demonstrating that even hard-to-master problems can be solved with more effort; and they get kids to verbalize their thinking and thereby scaffold tough mathematical concepts with language skills.

A Peer-to-Peer Approach

There’s a lot of research that suggests that teaching a topic to someone else is one of the best ways to learn it. Preparing to impart knowledge, it turns out, forces teachers to identify holes and weaknesses in their own knowledge, creating a mutually beneficial process of learning for both teachers and students.

Spanish teacher  Karen Vargo is on to something, then, when she asks students who did well on a test—usually it’s just for the larger, end-of-unit exams—to create a lesson and teach it to those who didn’t perform as well. If students who retake the test pass, both the peer student and the peer teacher receive extra points. Vargo credits Sal Khan of Khan Academy for the idea, and says that her students have embraced the approach, which she loves because she sees that “both students are improving.”

Metacognition Has Me Thinking...

In Ohio, high school teacher Theresa Grossheim Mengerink allows retakes, but only after a student has submitted a form that asks them to reflect on the past, present, and future of their testing efforts. Kids are asked to reflect on “why they failed and what they are going to do to improve” on the retake, and “how to prevent failure in the future.” Questions might prompt students to look at how many hours they actually studied, what strategies they used to master the material, and where and under what conditions the studying occurred.

Research suggests that this kind of metacognition is important for high school students, who are still developing long-term planning skills and benefit from opportunities to practice. According to Laurence Steinberg, one of the world’s leading researchers on adolescence, one metacognitive strategy that’s remarkably similar to Mengerink’s shows great promise: High school–aged students who are taught to plan for a long-term goal, imagine obstacles, and consider strategies for overcoming them show improvements in grades, attendance, and conduct.

The author of this article is the chief content officer at Edutopia. You can follow him on Twitter @smerrill777.

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  • 6-8 Middle School
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