How Many Retakes Should Students Get?

Teachers can set fair boundaries on retakes to emphasize skill building without creating an unmanageable workload for themselves.

March 14, 2024
FG Trade / iStock

Imagine a classroom where every student has the chance to overcome unforeseen circumstances that influence their academic performance. Emma, who has consistently engaged in class, never misses the opportunity to demonstrate her mastery. But then on the day of a major test, something outside of school throws her off her game, and her score doesn’t come close to what she knows. Should Emma get the opportunity to retake the exam?

This scenario underscores the critical need for retake opportunities, spotlighting the broader issue of educational equity. How do we craft retake policies that not only fit the real world of our classrooms but also lift every student’s chance to show what they’ve mastered? At the heart of it, educational equity is about making sure each of our students have what they need to succeed, which sometimes means a second shot to demonstrate mastery. Retakes can be a game changer, giving kids like Emma a fair chance. But let’s be real, figuring out how to do this without turning our grading system into a logistical nightmare is where the rubber meets the road.

The relationship between retakes and equity

Joe Feldman’s Grading for Equity pushed the envelope on this in 2018, suggesting that we rethink our grading practices to be more accurate, bias resistant, and motivating. And while I’m all for the push from Feldman, others meet his ideas with resistance. In my travels and talks with teachers from Arkansas to the Northeast, I’ve seen how tricky it can be to put retakes into practice, especially when educators believe equity requires unlimited retakes, an idea Feldman has called “a common hyperbolic shorthand” for grading equity.

Despite the appeal of unlimited retakes to enhance educational equity for students, few districts have fully changed district-wide policies, reflecting a consideration of both its potential benefits and its challenges. Teachers are juggling to keep things fair, motivate our students, and, frankly, keep our own sanity with the workload. So, what is the right balance between educational equity and the realities of classroom teaching? These three practical strategies manage retakes while respecting professional boundaries and ensuring equitable opportunities for all students.

3 Practical Strategies for Retakes

A thoughtful approach to retakes allows for knowledge demonstration, but the retake opportunities need not be boundless. Educators should seek a balance, crafting policies that support retake opportunities within structured, manageable frameworks.

1. Limit the number of retakes. In districts where unlimited retakes are the norm, students often develop apathy toward the initial attempt, with students leaning toward rote memorization for subsequent tries. To maintain both sanity and order in the classroom, setting a cap on retakes is a pragmatic solution. From my experience, implementing a two-retake limit on both formative and summative assessments proved effective, with few students needing the third attempt.

This policy not only accommodates students with test anxiety by offering a second chance but also maintains the integrity of the assessment process. Many educators I collaborate with opt for a single-retake policy, striking a balance between flexibility and rigor. Limiting retakes to one or two per assessment incentivizes students to prepare thoroughly from the outset, ensuring that they take every opportunity to demonstrate mastery seriously. To effectively limit retakes, we must ensure that students value their initial attempts, aligning with the science of learning, which highlights the importance of recall.

2. Allow retakes for skill proficiency, not for perfection. Imagine that Suzie scores a 95 on her formative assessment and insists on a retake for a perfect score. This raises a question: Does Suzie really need to retake the test? A score of 95 demonstrates high mastery. The aim is to reserve retakes for students needing to demonstrate proficiency, not those already excelling.

In my talks with honors teachers, a common issue with unlimited retakes is proficient students seeking them, potentially sidelining those nearing understanding. This highlights the need for retakes for students genuinely in need, particularly those facing unforeseen challenges, rather than for grade perfection. Overburdening teachers to boost grades for a few extra points is not the goal.

Many teachers advocate for a proficiency cap for retakes, such as a 3 on a 4-point scale, or 85 on a 100-point scale. This allows students below the proficiency mark a chance for improvement, ensuring that retakes fulfill their purpose of supporting those who benefit most. To foster a culture of genuine learning, educators should guide students to value mastery over perfection, emphasizing deep understanding and application of concepts beyond just achieving higher scores.

3. Require reengagement with the material. At a standards-based grading seminar, a revelation from a fellow educator struck me: Their policy didn’t require students to show further study before retakes, leading to one student redoing an assignment four times in a class. For effective retake implementation, mandating material reengagement is crucial, possibly through additional study guides, review sessions, or reflective essays on initial performance. This ensures that retakes are a meaningful learning step.

One school offers an “intervention” period in study hall, where teachers help students review past mistakes before retakes, reinforcing learning and maintaining equity without extra out-of-class demands. To effectively implement mandatory reengagement with material, educators could integrate structured reflection or review sessions that encourage students to analyze their initial performance and identify areas for improvement. This approach not only prepares them for retakes but also deepens their understanding and retention of the material.

So, where do we land on the whole retake debate? It’s about striking a balance. We’re all aiming to give every student a fair shot at showing what they’ve really got, without making our own lives impossible with unmanageable policies. Finding that sweet spot is key. It’s not just about keeping the peace in the classroom; it’s about ensuring that everyone gets a fair crack at proving their skills. By setting limits, homing in on true skill development, and requiring that extra bit of effort before a retake, we’re not just keeping things orderly—we’re championing a learning environment that’s as fair as it is effective.

If you allow retakes, how do you arrange them to promote learning and growth and also keep your workload manageable, particularly at the end of marking periods? Join the discussion in the comments.

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