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Should Kids Be Allowed to Retake Tests? A Parent’s — and a Teacher’s — View

Adams: I understand the benefits of do-overs. But I would still rather my daughter got her physics equations right the first time

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My daughter texted me from school, devastated that she’d failed a physics test she thought she’d been prepared for. She was worried it would bring down her overall class average at the end of the first marking period. A half-hour later, she texted to say all was good: Her teacher allowed her to make corrections, she got all the problems right this time and her grade was no longer in jeopardy.

On the one hand, I was pleased that she’d taken the initiative to fix what she perceived as a problem. On the other hand, I wasn’t sure how I felt about this infinite do-over approach. 

Even before COVID-19 prompted educators to reassess many of their practices, there was a movement in place to allow students to redo their work until they reached mastery. As Edutopia reported in 2019:

(I)n a recent Facebook and Twitter poll about whether our teachers allow makeup tests (78% said they did), 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.

My own concerns were more of the practical variety. When I heard that my daughter was allowed to go back and fix her mistakes, my mind instantly went to all the professionals in the real world — surgeons, firefighters, death row case trial lawyers, pilots, paramedics, cops and more — who really, really needed to get their jobs right the first time. With some jobs, “later” isn’t an option. Heck, in the realm of less life-and-death professions, I spent years working as a live television show producer. There were no second takes there, either.

As with all education research, both pros and cons have been tallied and reported. 

Some of the pros include the assertion that letting kids retake tests reduces cheating, makes them responsible for their own grades and helps them better evaluate their own learning.

Cons have been listed as lowered motivation; students procrastinating until they’ve fallen too far behind, leading to stress and mental health issues; and teachers needing to teach separate lessons to different class members during the same period.

After reading about a dozen such back and forths, I turned to my focus group of one: my husband, a middle school math and physics teacher who has, for years, allowed his students to redo their homework and in-class work as many times as they wish in order to get to 100% mastery.

I asked him why he believes the technique to be beneficial.

He stressed that, “Homework and in-class work is formative assessment, which is the key word, here. Homework and in-class work is practice. Because practice doesn’t make perfect; perfect practice makes perfect. Doing the work correctly over and over again is the only way to improve. Tests are summative assessments. They measure performance after practice. I allow redos only on homework and in-class work, which can include quizzes, but they are really Do Now’s. I don’t allow retakes on tests because the test measures what they’ve learned after all that practice. If you are a performing artist, it’s the performance that matters. For athletes, it’s the game. You might have batted 1000 in the batting cage, but what matters is the game. Homework versus tests is the same thing.”

Which brings us back to those surgeons, firefighters, death row case trial lawyers, pilots, paramedics, cops and more who, in real life, I would really like to get their tasks right the first time.

Their jobs can be considered the ultimate in summative assessment. But that assessment didn’t come on the first day of training. It came after many, many years of formative assessments in the guise of dissecting cadavers and arguing mock trials and practicing approaches on flight simulators and conducting rescue drills, not to mention taking paper-and-pencil tests as well.

So much education policy debate these days seems to be driven by a zero-sum game mindset. If we do things one way, we shouldn’t be doing them another, such as the reading wars over phonics versus whole language. As the late Stephen Sondheim wrote, “Is it always “or?” Is it never “and?”

Before this turns into another version of that, and until there are long-term studies measuring the relative effectiveness of do-overs versus one-shot testing, why not allow teachers to decide which approach is best for their particular classroom? Teachers, we are repeatedly told, know their students best and are the ones who should determine how those students are better off learning.

Why can’t, like school choice, there be teacher choice in how to approach instruction? And why not, as in the striving for diversity, can there also not be diversity of instructional methods?

Just as students benefit from a cross-section of classmates, they should also benefit from a cross-section of opinions on how best to teach. It would better prepare them for living and working with a variety of people for the rest of their lives, and help them figure out how they learn best, so they can attempt to customize accordingly.

That said, I would still rather my daughter got her physics equations right the first time.

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