On Retakes

Education Week recently featured two pieces on retakes, one for and one against. I found them both thought-provoking and I see arguments for both sides. I wouldn’t criticize any teacher for a purposeful assessment system, whether or not they offer a form of reassessment. I do have two observations which have influenced my decision to offer retakes for some, though not all, of my assessments.

I often hear that “in the real world there are no redos”. This type of argument doesn’t land for me:

Here’s how I explain it to my students. If you’re asked to meet a deadline in a future job, and you’re late or have poor-quality work, you might get fired. If you’re in a relationship and don’t show up to the dates, you might get dumped. If you cross the road without looking, and a car comes zooming by, you don’t get a second chance. I prefer that they get a bad grade and learn to give it their best shot on the first try, rather than to hear years from now that they’re still struggling.

I’ve heard a similar sentiment more times than I can count, but I think this is a misunderstanding of what school is designed to do. Most jobs are designed to maximize performance. They are structured so that employees can do their best work, because we live in a capitalist society structured around competition and many work-related tasks put the organization at a disadvantage if they are not performed well. School systems are designed to maximize learning, which is different from maximizing performance. If, when I came into class, all I was concerned about was helping my students answer a few math problems correctly, I would not be a very good teacher. My focus on performance in the short-term would disadvantage my students in developing the more flexible understanding they need to apply what they know in the long-term. I think that any time we justify something in schools because “this is how it works in the real world,” we should stop to think about whether that “real world” situation we are thinking of is one that is structured to maximize learning. Most are not.

Second, I’ve offered opportunities for reassessments in two very different schools I’ve taught at, with different student populations, school structures, and paradigms for what assessment looks like. In both schools, far fewer students than I would like actually followed through with retakes without significant badgering from me. I’ve heard this from plenty of other teachers — not to say that it’s true in every school, but it seems common. I think I offered something valuable for the students who took me up on it, and I think I created a useful path forward for students who are really struggling, or parents who want to encourage their students to improve.

What I don’t do except in unique situations is to offer watered-down assessments at the end of the marking period that students can take for “extra credit”, or to erase missing or incomplete assignments. I think that this practice, which seems to be common in many schools, is one that can actually undermine students’ ability to see that their actions have consequences, and it erases any connection that grades might have with actual learning. I offer retakes on my terms, which are laid out clearly at the start of the year, and I am always adjusting to try to be fair to students while also keeping my workload manageable. I have made exceptions to this for students who the whole school is working to support, but I’m not proud of those exceptions — I think that, in every case, we as a school should have acted sooner and more proactively to support those students, rather than waiting until it was too late.

Again, I don’t think that retakes are for everyone. It takes a lot of effort, and that effort might be better spent on meaningful formative assessment or analysis of student work to improve teaching. But I think that arguments of “there are no retakes in the real world,” or “students won’t study for the test if they can retake it,” are insufficient to make a decision not to allow reassessment.

3 thoughts on “On Retakes

  1. Michael Paul Goldenberg

    What is your purpose in teaching mathematics in relation to what you want students to be able to do as a result of taking your classes?

    What role does assessment play in accomplishing the above?

    When you have clear answers to the first two questions, you can answer meaningfully questions about retakes and not before.

    Reply
    1. dkane47 Post author

      That makes sense. I think that, in my teaching, I try to be humble about the non-math skills I can teach. I’d love to teach students perseverance, pride in doing work well, a belief in their own efficacy as learners, effective oral communication, thoughtful collaboration with peers that supports peer learning, and a lot more — but I’m not sure how well I actually know how to teach soft skills like those and I think I want to focus on the one or two that I feel really good about, and not try to do everything at the expense of doing anything well.

      Reply
  2. Pingback: Retake Policy – When Math Happens

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