I have to admit, I’ve played with the idea of retakes for years, trying all variations. But it wasn’t until our Capital District NYS Master Teacher Program invited Rick Wormeli to speak a few years ago, that I fully embraced and developed my version of retakes.
I won’t lie. Going into that September I was fairly apprehensive. What was I getting into? Would I be inundated with work? Would the kids take just slack off on the first try at an assessment? Would it even make a difference?
Here’s what happened.
The most common criticism I’ve heard of the retake process is that it makes the kids “soft” and isn’t preparing them for the real world. Let’s get this out of the way now. That is categorically false. Compared to the students who score poorly, shrug and think “Maybe I’ll do better on the next topic” or worse “That sucked. I am really stupid” I’d argue students engaging in retakes are doing MORE work on the topic. That’s not soft. And unless your real world is different than mine, retakes are a HUGE part of the real life, right? You can retake your SATs, Regents Exams, Drivers Test, Pilot’s Licence, CSTs, LAST, Bar Exam, MCATS, National Board Certification, and school pictures. People can break off relationships and try again with someone new, play a course another time for a lower score, erase their crossword, try a different parenting technique to help their kids. The list is almost endless.
I mean, are there things you can’t do over? For sure. Like if you forget to feed your goldfish and it dies… well, game over. But I’m not sure letting a student retake my Water & Climate Exam was the determining factor in that life lesson. Just saying.
Another concern about accountability goes something like this: “Students need to be responsible by the time they get to Earth Science. Retakes might work in Middle School but not at this level.” Again, I just don’t think that’s true. If this strategy can be used in some undergrad and graduate classes, why wouldn’t it work in high school? Especially when the outcome is a better understanding of the material, improved short-term and long-term performance, and greater student buy-in.
I want to make something clear, though. My students don’t just show up for a retake any old time. My process requires them to:
- Complete a Google Form where they reflect on the assessment and how they prepared. Now, if they blow off the reflection, I just let them know it is unacceptable. They can redo (ha, get the theme?) the reflection or they cannot do the retake. It only needs to happen once before they catch on that you take this seriously.
- Have their parent or guardian contact me via phone or email (and this is a fantastic way to get parent email info as well as establishing positive contact!). The parent or guardian must state the original score and that their child has been preparing for the retake. I provide them with a template/script for this. Learn from my experience here. This is SO much better than having parents sign the test… because you just KNOW Dan is in the stairwell forging signatures for $5 a pop. Or if the parent sends the email without stating the score it was entirely possibly Audrey changed her 59 to an 89 with a swipe of the pen. This helps keep everyone honest.
- Complete a review activity. Typically, I will have most students complete another practice test online and then, if needed, come to review that again with me.
Developing a system I deemed fair to all students was one of my biggest hurdles. I tried all permutations: Retakes only in extenuating circumstances, retakes for students who didn’t pass (with a maximum grade of 65% on the retake), retakes for students not achieving mastery (with a maximum grade of 85% on the retake). I always had that niggling suspicion that none of this was quite fair.
Here’s where I let go.
I decided ANY student can retake ANY assessment for FULL* credit.
I didn’t want this practice to be unfair to my highest achieving students. For example, Logan scored 85% on the first assessment, and Katie scored a 60%. Katie completed a retake and scored 88%… three points higher than Logan. Is that fair? Well, yeah. It is. All students can take retakes so Logan has the same opportunity to retake and raise his score as Katie.
If you’ve ever had a student who was “mathematically out” in December you are aware of the struggles that are part and parcel of that situation. Retakes keep your kids in the game. They are not mathematically out.
Further, to go back to Logan and Katie’s situation, Katie is continuing to work to improve because there is HOPE. Logan can continue to work, realizing that he can always do better. Although we don’t share grades between students, they do talk amongst themselves and this becomes a bit of a competition. As a former college athlete, varsity coach, and mom of three little athletes, I am a BIG believer that a little competition can raise the bar and stir up that extra motivation to do better.
Based on what we know from retrieval practice studies, the more times a student practices the material, through self-tests or actual tests, the more likely that information is to “stick”. As I’ve written in previous posts on summary sheets and my upcoming post on assessment, I like to play the long game. Do I want to see my students succeed on this one assessment? Absolutely. But I also realize this one assessment is just a building block in our year; their end game is a deep and lasting understanding of the curriculum and success on their Regents Exam.
Now, some might argue Katie hadn’t sufficiently prepared for the first test. Maybe that is true. Or maybe Katie just needed more time to master the material. Maybe she’d had an argument with a friend or was anxious about her first varsity start later that evening. I might not know and the fact is I don’t need to know. I’m not assessing Katie on whether she was prepared or took my class seriously. I’m assessing her on the content and if she shows she has a stronger grasp of the material on the retake, then she deserves that score.
So, this does take a bit of organization, especially when you are first starting. I love using my Google Form to track who is doing retakes and when. That’s huge. The other aspect that has made this easier is my test design. Similar to our Regents Exams, I break my assessments into a multiple choice section and CRQ (Constructed Response Questions) sections. Each is scored separately and this allows me to better track student strengths, weaknesses, and progress. My students can choose to retake either or both sections, but most choose multiple choice. I use TestWizard software to create my exams, selecting Regents Questions from the last few years. It only takes a few minutes to select another sampling of questions and push that out to the students. This software grades the multiple choice section for you so that saves a ton of time.
To be honest, the workload is very manageable. In fact, if anything, I am surprised by the number of students who do not initially choose to complete retakes. This leads to our last section.
Ever receive an email from a parent who is mystified/concerned about their child’s grade? I have. Allowing retakes resolves these conversations pretty quickly. They now go something like this:
Parent: I just saw Patrick has a 62% in Earth Science! Can he do bonus** work to improve his grade?
Me: So… I don’t offer bonus work for credit but let’s see: Patrick scored 60% on our last unit test and a 68% on a quiz. I’m looking at our Google Form and it appears he hasn’t requested a retake on either of these. That’s where I would start.
Parent: Wait. WHAT?! He can do a retake?
Me: Yes. For full credit. The new grade totally replaces the old grade. I hope he considers doing a retake.
Parent: Oh, he definitely will be doing that. I’ll talk to him when he gets home. Thank you.
Me: No, thank you! I appreciate your email and your concern about his progress in our class. Please let me know if you have any additional questions or concerns.
Boom. Done. The conversation is positive, there is an actionable plan, and the accountability for success has been effectively transferred back to the student.
If you haven’t been considering retakes, this is a lot to wrap your head around. I get it. And I am a big believer in using strategies that work for you in your classroom because kids recognize an imposter faster than anything. We need to believe in what we are doing. So think this over, maybe read this article by Rick Wormeli and see how it works in another class. Then, when you are ready, take this idea and make it your own!
Moral of the story: When we let go of our strict views on assessment (views we lived and learned in our own education and training) and embrace the idea of retakes, we actually gain more control of our students’ learning and they gain more agency in the process. It is a win-win.
Thanks for reading along. Let me know what you think.
*Full Credit. You bet. Go big or go home. I tried other percentages but they are arbitrary at best. If a student demonstrates mastery of 90% of the material, it would be unfair to record a lesser percentage.
**Bonus work. Yeah, I don’t believe in this. No sense in bonus work when you are struggling to master the work we are currently doing. Don’t get me wrong. I would LOVE to see kids going above and beyond to learn more about the topics in our class. I encourage it. But it has to be intrinsic.