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Why Should We Allow Students to Retake Assessments?

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Today's guest blog is written by Thomas R. Guskey, professor emeritus at the University of Kentucky.

As schools look ahead to update grading policies when they reopen, one hotly debated issue is whether students should be given the opportunity to retake assessments. Proponents argue that retake options reduce text anxiety and allow students to demonstrate more fully what they've learned. Critics contend that retakes lessen students' motivation to prepare for assessments and encourage poor study habits that leave students ill-prepared for college and careers. At the very least they want students to meet strict requirements for the retake privilege.

Although many authors and consultants have stepped forward to offer their opinions on retakes, few have studied the origin of the idea or the accompanying research. As a result, the debates continue unresolved, rarely changing anyone's perspectives or practices.

Few proponents or critics of assessment retakes know, for example, that the idea can be traced to the work of Benjamin Bloom in the 1960s. Bloom observed that the assessments most teachers use at the end of learning units serve mainly as evaluation devices that confirm for which students the teachers' instruction was appropriate and for which it wasn't. He believed, however, that if those same assessments could be used as part of the instructional process to provide students with feedback on their learning, they could become powerful learning tools. To underscore this informing purpose, Bloom suggested labeling them "formative assessments" (Bloom, 1968; Bloom, Hastings, & Madaus, 1971).

But assessments alone do little to improve student learning or teaching quality. What counts is what happens after the assessments. Just as regularly checking your weight or blood pressure does little to improve your health if you do nothing with the information, what matters most with formative assessments is what students and teachers do with the results.

To bring improvement, Bloom stressed formative assessments must be followed by high-quality, corrective instruction designed to remedy whatever learning errors the assessments identified. Unlike reteaching, which typically involves simply repeating the original instruction, correctives present concepts in new ways and engage students in different learning experiences. 

Furthermore, the correctives initially must be conducted in class, under the teacher's direction. They cannot be optional activities for students to complete on their own as homework or in special study sessions before or after school. If left optional, those students who could benefit most are the least likely to take part. Instead, teachers need to guide students through the corrective process, so they see its benefits and experience the success it brings.

While the teacher directs the corrective work, students who performed well on the initial assessments engage in special enrichment activities. Rather than simply moving ahead, these students deepen their understanding through self-selected, learning extensions and inquiry experiences. Or they may choose to become a peer-tutor for one of their classmates.

When the correctives are completed after a class period or two, Bloom recommended students who engaged in correctives be given a second, parallel formative assessment for two reasons. First, the second assessment helps teachers determine if the correctives were effective in helping students remedy their learning difficulties. Second, and perhaps more important, it gives students a second chance at success and, hence, has great motivational value.

Common Concerns
After I appeared on Education Week's A Seat at the Table (watch the episode here) and answered two questions (one from a student and the other from a teacher) about retakes during our discussion on assessment and grading, educators continued the chat on social media. Eric E. Castro and Yosup Joo both said they were huge fans of the process, but their "pain point" was when it came to the number of students in their classes and their ability to offer retakes. 

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Time and Coverage
Teachers often express concern that taking class time for correctives will require them to sacrifice curriculum coverage. Indeed, early units with correctives generally require more time. But to move on without completing correctives puts the most vulnerable students in double jeopardy, having to remedy existing problems while keeping up with new material. Most teachers find, however, that as students become accustomed to the corrective process and realize its benefits, class time can be reduced, and students can complete most of their correctives as homework or in special study sessions.

Furthermore, by not allowing minor errors to become major learning problems, teachers ensure students are well prepared for subsequent learning tasks. Instruction in later units can therefore be more rapid, with less time spent on review. By pacing their instruction more flexibly, allowing more time for early units and less time in later ones, most teachers find they don't have to sacrifice curriculum coverage to offer students the benefits of high-quality corrective instruction. 

"Not What Life Is Like"
Other teachers believe that giving students a second chance is, "not what life is like." They point out that a surgeon doesn't get a second chance to perform an operation successfully and a pilot doesn't get a second chance to land a jet safely. Because of the very high stakes involved, each must get it right the first time.

But consider how these highly skilled professionals learned their craft. The surgeon's first operation was performed on a cadaver—a situation that allows a lot of latitude for mistakes. Similarly, the pilot spent many hours in a flight simulator before ever attempting a landing from the cockpit of a real jet. Such experiences allowed these professionals to learn from their mistakes and improve their performance. Similar instructional techniques are used in nearly every professional endeavor. Only in schools do students face the prospect of one-shot, do-or-die assessments, with no chance to demonstrate what they learned from previous mistakes.

Fair Grades
Still other teachers suggest it's unfair to offer the same high grades to students who require a second chance as were awarded to students who performed well on the initial assessment. Certainly, students who initially did well should be recognized for their success and given opportunities to extend their learning through stimulating enrichment activities. But if the grade's purpose is to describe how well students mastered specific learning goals, and if students engaged in correctives eventually demonstrate the same high level of mastery, don't they deserve the same high grades?

Driver's license exams offer a comparable example. Many people don't pass their driver's exam until their second or third attempt. Should their driving privileges be restricted as a result? For example, should they be allowed to drive only in fair weather? Should their license indicate "Fair weather driving only." Of course not! Because they eventually met the same high standards of performance, their driving privileges are no different. The same is true of medical board exams for physicians and the bar exam for attorneys.

Conclusion
The question regarding retakes isn't simply, "Should students get a second chance?" Rather, it is, "How can we use assessments to help students improve?" If we incentivize success on the first assessment by planning enticing enrichment activities and guide students in correcting the learning errors identified on that assessment, we're much more likely to realize Benjamin Bloom's dream of having all students, ALL students learn well. 

Connect with Tom Guskey on Twitter

Photo courtesy of Getty Images. 

References

Bloom, B. S. (1968). Learning for mastery. Evaluation Comment (UCLA-CSEIP), 1(2), 1-12.

Bloom, B. S., Hastings, J. T., & Madaus, G. F. (1971). Handbook on formative and summative evaluation of student learning. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt's Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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