Posted in Assessment

The case against “The Case for Not Allowing Test Retakes”

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Last night on Twitter I came across this tweet: 

Go ahead and read the article… I’ll wait 🙂

The article really struck a chord with me, and not in a good way. Actually it sent me on a 10-tweet rant, and when I woke up this morning, I still felt compelled to write about it.

Anyone who has worked with me knows my passion for Standards-Based Grading. I started this in my first year of teaching (before I even knew that SBG was a thing), and I am continually striving to improve our grading system so that it meets the needs of both students and teachers. We have modified every year to address different needs/issues that arise. It’s never been perfect. It’s still not. But the pros so outweigh the cons that I would never go back. [As a side note, here’s a pervasive problem in education – if something doesn’t work perfectly the first time, we throw it out instead of working to solve the problems we have. But I digress…]

The author bases this article on his “experience with policies around allowing test retakes, dropping late work penalties, and prohibiting zeros.” I am not clear on what these experiences are – what this teacher has tried, what issues arose, what he did to try to fix them – but I’ll build my arguments here on my own experience.

The traditional policies—giving each assessment only once, penalizing late work, and giving zeros in some situations—help most students maximize their learning and improve their time management skills, preparing them for success in college and career.

I find this statement problematic for many reasons. First, the idea that these policies help “most” students. How many is most? 99%? 51%? There’s a big difference. Yes, we have a lot of students who have figured out how to play the game of school, but what about the other 1-49% of students who are not helped by these policies? I see grading reform as looking for ways to move closer to “all.” I started using SBG to help students help themselves. I wanted all students to be able to look at an assessment and know where they excelled and where they needed to improve. I found that students did not understand how to “maximize their learning” with “traditional” grading policies, so I looked for ways to make the learning process more coherent for all students. Am I reaching every single student? Not yet… but now I’m better able to strategically intervene with students based on specific areas that they haven’t yet grasped.

But this author doesn’t focus on content learning as much as improving “time management skills, preparing them for success in college and career.” So let’s talk more about these interpersonal skills that are taught through “traditional” grading practices.

Deadlines motivate force me to finish something. I am a procrastinator/perfectionist: I am so sure that the longer I keep working on a project, the better I can make it, so I tend to wait until the last minute to submit. (This is why it takes me so long to blog. EDIT: this is why I’m still working on this blog post 2 days later…) But if I’m past a deadline, do I keep going? If I don’t get “credit” for my late work, what’s the point? Oh well, maybe next time. Except what have I learned? I’ve learned that if I don’t submit something on time, I never have to learn that content; in fact, my teacher won’t even let me turn in that project to show what I’ve learned. I have NOT learned how to “improve [my] time management skills” so that this won’t happen again. I am NOT prepared for college because I still don’t know how to “self-assess and then self-advocate to get the help that [I] need.” I need a teacher to help me learn how to do this.

The author purports that these new policies are designed for students who are intrinsically motivated, and that many students need extrinsic motivation. I’m not sure what evidence there is to support the first point, but I would argue that traditional grading practices decrease motivation. On a traditional 100 point scale for grading, a zero is detrimental. Let’s say there are four major assignments in my class; if I earn a zero on the first assignment, even if I earn 100% on the next three, the maximum score I can earn is 75%. If the best grade I can earn is a C, even if I try my very hardest, why bother? Using SBG, on the other hand, I’ve seen an increase in motivation and buy-in from students because they know that I am continually assessing their progress. They know that if they don’t get it now, they can keep working at it and keep learning. Students learn at different rates and we must honor that in both our words and our actions, which is why the following quote hurts my heart the most:

In math classes, where concepts constantly build on one another, traditional policies hold students to schedules that keep them learning with the class. This makes kids practice and check their practice on a timeline determined by the teacher that will have them ready to test before the test.

As much as teachers plan lessons and try to keep a certain pace, it is student learning that truly dictates the timeline of the class. Please don’t misunderstand me: I don’t stop moving forward until every single student gets a concept – that’s not good for anyone. But it’s also not good to stick to a timeline for the sake of a timeline, at the expense of student learning. I find that SBG allows me to continue with the course at a reasonable pace, while allowing for students to continue to improve their understanding at their own pace.

But isn’t math sequential? The author points this out in his paragraph on mental health:

My math class builds sequentially: Mastery in early units helps students be successful in the following units. In my experience, traditional policies motivate students to maximize their learning in the first unit, which helps them on every later unit.

The great thing about math being sequential is that we’re constantly practicing the skills that we’ve learned! For example, in my Algebra class, we would learn the distributive property early in the course. Students would make mistakes (distributing a negative!) that would lead to lower scores on assessments. However, we would use it all the time in every unit that came after, and guess what… they got pretty good at the distributive property! Of course, this happens in every class, but with SBG, their grade now reflects their current understanding, instead of their quiz score from September.

Since the author brought it up, let’s talk about mental health for a second. I’m going to ignore the HUGE leap from soft deadlines to Snapchat and instead focus on this statement in particular: “Under retake policies, parents at my school have expressed concerns about how overwhelmed their children become due to being caught in a vicious cycle of retakes.” Although my entire school hasn’t enacted these policies (yet), I have seen the opposite happen in our math classes. Instead of stressing out over an assessment, students feel more relaxed because they know that one bomb won’t tank their grade, that we’ll keep working at it until they get it. I also employ highlight grading to refocus assessments on learning rather than grades. I got several sweet notes this year from students who specifically named these practices as helping them “relax and focus on learning rather than stressing about grades.”

The author’s third point is on teacher effectiveness. I’m not going to lie; the first year of reforming grading policies is tough stuff. But I find that to be true with everything! The first time you try something new, it feels clunky and time-consuming because you’re having to make conscious decisions about everything. Think about your first year teaching: those lesson plans probably took a long time. Now they are second nature, so it doesn’t take you nearly as long. Same with implementing SBG. Once you have a system in place, it becomes second nature. The author points out, “every minute writing and grading retakes or grading long-overdue work is a minute that I’m not planning effective and creative instruction,” but I have come to find that I can’t plan a lesson without knowing where my students are. It is the assessment that feeds the instruction, and with SBG, I know exactly where my students are and SO DO THEY. Ultimately they are better equipped to make decisions as to how to improve, and they start doing the heavy lifting, not me. Presto changeo, teacher effectiveness.

Finally, and most importantly IMHO, I’d like to address specifically the fundamental mindset shift that must occur before making any changes in grading policies, the mindset that seems to undergird this article and many arguments like it. Many teachers think that the goal of changing grading practices is giving students better grades, which is reflected in the author’s focus on options (“test retakes, dropping late work penalties, and prohibiting zeros”) rather than interests (increased student learning). Although I’m thrilled students are earning better grades, I’m more concerned with aligning student grades with their current understanding.

Shoutout to @mrdardy for sharing this article and getting me all fired up! 🙂