“Did you finish studying for your math test?” I said, a little too sharply, to my 12-year-old son one morning.
“Sort of,” he sighed. “It doesn’t even matter. If I don’t do well I’ll just retake it.”
Middle and high schools across the country, including those in my children’s district, often allow students to retake exams. And it’s not just final exams or midterms; some educators permit retakes after every test.
While there is evidence from teachers and researchers outlining the pros and cons of test retakes, as a parent I wonder what the policy teaches children about responsibility, ownership and preparedness. When it comes time for college, employment, relationships or marriage, they won’t always get a “do-over,” so why are so many schools allowing them?
Proponents of retakes believe they allow students who struggle with test-taking another chance to master the material, and say retakes help with overall retention. Others point out that just because it takes some students longer to grasp a concept, it doesn’t mean they are less intelligent. Still others say retakes reduce stress and pressure on already anxious students. They believe such policies may allow kids to better comprehend material by repeating it.
Testing is not the only indicator of success or intelligence. But some parents feel retakes provide a safety net before testing even occurs, which could make students less inclined to put forth their best effort the first time. They may also create an atmosphere where students and parents consistently demand another chance when they disagree with a grade.
Melissa Legg, a middle and high school teacher in Minnesota, says retakes do allow students to better grasp material, because they study more before taking the test again. But her advice to her own three boys is “Be prepared the first time.”
Jessica Lahey, author of The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed, says the problem goes beyond retakes.
“The question of whether or not retakes are fair or productive is beside the point,” she said. “What we should be talking about is that ‘summative’ or ‘cumulative’ assessments, when teachers teach a unit, then there’s a big, comprehensive unit test at the end, is not effective teaching or assessment, and it does not promote true, deep learning. When summative or cumulative assessments are paired with a ‘no retake’ option, we are really failing kids and their learning.”
Retake policies vary — some teachers require additional meetings before a retake, some allow students to retake the test in a slightly different format as soon as the next day. Partial retakes are permitted by others if there are certain sections a student performs poorly on, and still others allow students to retake any exam at any time, and use the higher grade as their final score.
Some teachers I spoke to dislike retakes because they feel it can diminish grades or water down their meaning. Linda Wilson, a retired middle school teacher in Ohio, did not allow retakes in her classroom. “That’s not how life really works,” she said. But she did believe in reviewing test answers with the entire group after an exam to discuss the answers and the thought process used to get there, to ensure students have mastered the material.
As a parent, I’ve often been frustrated with my kids, assuming if they needed a retake it was because they didn’t study hard enough the first time. “They’ll learn eventually,” I would say under my breath in a voice that sounds unsurprisingly like my mother’s. But I have a master’s degree in psychology, which helps me understand that children need a safe place to try, fail and learn without fear. That process can often be more meaningful than the eventual outcome or grade.
“Knowing what you do and don’t know . . . is something humans don’t do very well, so any chance we get to exercise that muscle is a good thing,” Lahey says of retakes, pointing out that when combined with tests, the ability to receive and internalize feedback can enhance learning.
Still, some parents remain concerned that the option of a retake every time a test is given could hinder a child’s future success. Self-discipline isn’t easy. Tweens and teens are constantly pushing the limits to see what they can get away with. But perhaps seeing retakes as less of a way out and more of a path to ensure all kids are actually learning (versus just memorizing material or cramming) is something we need to consider.
While many parents and educators disagree with evaluating a student’s performance with just grades, studies show that an overall grade is a better predictor of college success than test performance. But since test scores can be weighted toward a student’s overall grade as much as 80 percent, they often become the grade, regardless of how successfully a child completes projects and other assignments. No one says, though, that the overall grade has to be the first grade given.
When my son told me he’d just retake his math test if he did poorly, we had a long discussion about what it means to be organized. I told him that a lack of preparation is disrespectful to his teacher, who spent weeks teaching his class the material. It also will chip away at his confidence and, eventually, his opinion of himself if he consistently feels unprepared. If he studies and does poorly, that is one thing. But falling back on a retake to buy himself more time isn’t going to cut it.
“Parents and teachers do need to teach kids about due dates and deadlines; absolutely,” Lahey said. “However, we also have to help kids understand that the end of a unit or the reality of a deadline does not mark the end of learning.”
Julie Scagell is a freelance writer and mother based in Minnesota. Find her on Twitter @74AMB.
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