Teaching Controversy: Allowing Students to Re-Take Tests

I’ve mentioned before that I have a few “series” I want to start writing to on this blog periodically.  One of the ones I am excited about is “Teaching Controversy.” Especially as a secondary teacher, there are so many things that teachers debate over, such as curve tests, or not?  Accept late work, or not?  Provide study guides, or not?  As secondary teachers we are in a tough position.  Over a four-year period in our classrooms, students are transitioning from being fresh out of middle school to being 18 years old, about to live on their own.  It is such an important time where life skills, critical thinking capabilities, and autonomy need to be cultivated if we want our students to be successful after graduation.  But how harsh is too harsh?  Where do we draw the line?  These issues can be tricky, which is why I want to open the door to discuss some of these controversial issues here, as well as to hear YOUR opinions about what has worked in your classroom. 

Today I am writing my thoughts on allowing students to re-take tests.  This has been a major issue I’ve had to deal with, in both public and private schools.  I’ve taught in a public school where it was mandatory to allow students to re-take every test until they made a passing grade (Ex. 60%.)  This was so outrageous to me.  Students never studied, because they figured they might as well just wing it the first time and see how they did with no preparation, then see their grade and decide if they needed to study for the next <insert any number> tries before they passed. 

The heart behind it was that we are giving students every opportunity to succeed and we are essentially demanding that they learn the content by not letting them just fail a unit test and move on like it never happened.   This I totally understand and support.  But there are so many other things about this policy that put a bad taste in my mouth.  

  1. It wasn’t fair for the students who did study and were trying their best and making C’s.  They were not allowed to re-test.  So it was rewarding students who did poorly, while students who did well were not treated the same.  
  2. So.much.work.for.teachers.  You could allow every student opportunities to re-test if you were concerned with #1 (like I was) but that essentially meant you were ALWAYS grading tests and could never get ahead. 
  3. Teachers weren’t required to make a new test for each re-test, but I felt like if I didn’t make a new test it was just a complete joke of an assessment.  If I give all students the same test, they could just read it to see what was on it, purposefully fail, then study the specific questions and come back and ace the re-test.  It would be a complete manipulation of the system to not re-make each re-test version.  But if you do that, some students need 7 re-takes to pass, so that's 7 tests (going back to point #2…R.I.P the lives of teachers outside of school.)
  4. I think the real reason the policy was in place wasn't even to help the kids anyway, it was to help the schools in the district have better overall statistics. 
The third school I’ve taught in was a private school, and I was relieved to know this re-test policy didn’t exist.  But with a private school, I’d have parents demanding me to offer a re-test if their kid had a bad day, or was up late at play practice, or any other number of reasons.  Some of the excuses were legitimate, but at times it was hard having to wade through the subjectivity of it all. 

All of that to say, my experiences with allowing re-takes has been poor.  First, I always have offered them outside of class time, during lunch or tutoring, so that I wouldn’t lose precious in class time.  When I have offered this as an option (like when I’ve gotten a really low class average) the students who really NEED to re-take it rarely show up, and you end up with all these kids with 90’s trying to re-take to get a 100%.  I’ve also rarely seen students actually do much better on the second try.  Because of these things, it has made it really hard for me to allow re-takes in my classroom.

BUT I understand the heart behind them, and wanting to get kids to stop and learn the material rather than just charging forward, and if we never hold them accountable will they ever really learn it? 

So here is my solution: all of my tests are cumulative.  This allows me to not allow re-takes, training my students to prepare and plan ahead with their studying, and hold them to a higher standard like they will be in college.  This also forces students to really learn it well the first time, OR if they do poorly, it motivates them to come in and get tutoring on old content before they see it AGAIN on another test.   

Students will meet the expectations you set.  I’ve set an expectation in my classroom that with my assessments, you can’t survive by just cramming the content in your brain.  You have to learn the material for real and really understand it, long term, in order to succeed.  Plus it’s great because kids never worry about my midterms or final exams, because they’ve been keeping up with the material all year long with their cumulative tests!


That’s my experience and the solution I’ve come up with – now I’d love to hear YOURS!  Share it in the comments below!
As a teacher, we need strategies daily to deal with the multitudes of problems that come our way.  One of those problems is whether or not to allow our students to re-take tests.   Here are some reasons why allowing students to re-take tests may not be the best, an alternative solution to get the same result.

6 comments

  1. While I don't allow test re-takes, I do allow test corrections. Students must answer the question correctly and explain why this is the correct answer. For every 2 questions they correct, they can earn one point. Only students who scored less than 70% can do this and they can only correct their score up to a 70%. The goal is to help them learn the material. The work is outside of class time of course. It creates extra paperwork for me and the results are not always as hoped, but I tweak the system a little every semester. I like your idea of cumulative tests. I may start incorporating that into my tests.

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    1. I like this!! And that you cap at 70%. That seems like a fair compromise, because they are having to re-think through the questions, but aren't able to get a super high score like someone who studied and did well the first try. I might use this in my classroom next semester!

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  2. I teach Grade 7 and 8 French, and I have on some occasions allowed re-tests, but students must take the initiative to come see me during tutorials if they want to take advantage of this opportunity. Only those with less than 60% are allowed to do this, and the maximum grade I will give on a re-test is 60%. I feel that this is the best of both worlds - allowing those who had an "off" day the opportunity to improve, but without re-grading entire classes of tests over and over. Unfortunately, not very many students take advantage of the opportunity when it is offered.

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  3. last year For the first time in my long career, I allowed students to retake formative tests. They had to do a proof of practice before the retake. I had options for the students to choose for the POP. All of the options required a parent signature. Parents could sign without being honest about the time spend but that is on them. Sadly, a lot of students were too lazy (explains why they failed the first time?) to do the POP so there was no retake. This is allowed me to tell parents that retakes could be taken of formative tests but never on summative tests.

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    1. I really like this idea - especially with the POP - and I totally hear you on kids not taking advantage of opportunities like this. It's so frustrating! I'd love to hear more how you differentiate between some tests being formative and others being summative!! I feel like my quizzes are formative but all my tests are summative, so maybe I could just try letting them do quiz re-takes with a POP?

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  4. Hello! I just found your blog (through Pinterest!) and I am loving it! I currently teach 6th grade math, but am moving back to teaching science, next year (which grade is not yet determined).

    While teaching math, we allowed “test improvements”...this was (usually) 10 questions (up to 30 points total) of similar types of problems as the test...which is easy to do with math.

    Anyone could do them, and students had a week (with a w/end in there) to do them. And they can never earn above a 90% the first semester, 80% the second semester.

    Totally optional, not accepted late, and no in class reminders (only on my calendar and on Remind 101)...this was their chance to show initiative to their grades. Lots of students choose not to & it becomes a powerful tool in a parent-teacher conference (“Well, Mrs. Smith...Johnny has had an opportunity to improve his test scores after every test, but he chose not to.”). Lots of students choose to do it, though, to better their test scores.

    We have recently tried using a “I missed this question because...” format, where they list the questions they missed, explain why they missed it, correct it, and give reasons (or show work). I might use this more for science...?

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