Letting Students Re-Take Tests: A Classroom Dilemma Over Goals for Schools*

Why do U.S. voters, with and without children, tax themselves to provide public schools and compel children and youth to attend for a decade or more?

Although reasons have changed over time, Americans  consistently wanted schools to prepare students for the demands of being a participating citizen in the community, entering the workplace with skills and knowledge, and exhibiting the character traits that family and neighbors value highly. Sure, there are other goals that have risen and fallen in ranking but these three sum up public aspirations over the past two centuries of schooling. Preparation for the workplace–and its proxy doing well on standardized tests here and abroad–has dominated public debate as the highest priority for schooling (this week is the 35th anniversary of A Nation at Risk report).

What is often overlooked in debates over goals is that it is the classroom teacher who has the job of translating abstract goals into daily lessons. And that journey from desired goals to adopted policies to classroom practice too often goes unnoticed. Especially when teachers have to wrestle with those goals and policies in setting classroom rules for their students.

Consider the simple decision of whether a teacher should permit (or not) students to re-take a test if the student does poorly. Actually, it ain’t simple. It is a dilemma.

One horn of that dilemma is that teachers prize the value of students taking the test seriously and preparing for it because deadlines and tests are common in the adult world. Schools and teachers are expected to prepare students for the “real” world.

The other horn of the dilemma is that teachers prize mastery of content and skills and caring. Teachers know that students vary in their ability to grasp knowledge and perform skills. They also know that time is the variable and re-taking quizzes and tests–call it “formative assessment”–gives students opportunities to demonstrate mastery. Then there is the value of compassion for students who are not yet adults. They need more time to master the content and skills and should not be penalized for a low test score. Thus re-taking the test recognizes that everyone can have a bad day or freeze on an exam. Sympathy for a child or teenager when a teacher remembers what it is like to be young expresses caring and respect, yet even another value embedded in teacher decisions aimed at student learning.

These prized values come into play in this classroom dilemma over the question a teacher asks of herself: Should I permit students who have low or failing grades on a test re-take the same or a similar test to raise their grades? It is a dilemma that goes straight back to which goals of schooling are most important in this particular classroom decision.

Consider what middle school teacher Baptiste Delvalle does with his students:

Here’s how I explain it to my students. If you’re asked to meet a deadline in a future job, and you’re late or have poor-quality work, you might get fired. If you’re in a relationship and don’t show up to the dates, you might get dumped. If you cross the road without looking, and a car comes zooming by, you don’t get a second chance. I prefer that they get a bad grade and learn to give it their best shot on the first try, rather than to hear years from now that they’re still struggling.

Delvalle is persuasive in casting a classroom test as an object lesson in succeeding as an adult where second chances in life are rare. It is an argument for being responsible for your actions the first time, not later.

Lisa Westman, a veteran of 15 years in classrooms, sees it differently.

In addition to the daily assessments we give them now, students will take many tests over the course of their lives, such as a driver’s exam, the SAT, the LSAT, and the MCAT, to name a few. All of these examples allow retakes. The way school prepares students for real life is by ensuring they learn the content and skills necessary to live a full, productive life. Part of real life is determining next steps when life doesn’t go as planned.

Westman argues for permitting re-taking tests as a way for students to achieve mastery of content and skills since most formal written, oral, or real-life tests in life can be re-taken until they are passed.

Lurking in the background of this back-and-forth on the worth of students being permitted to re-take tests are the workplace conditions inherent to the age-graded school that heavily influence teacher decision-making such as having 25-35 students in a class, covering so much content and skills every week, and scanning homework assignments daily–what some writers call “the grammar of schooling.” Making time to create different tests for those students and squeezing in students before, during, and after school to re-take tests spends scarce teacher time to plan lessons, listen to students, and actually teach.

While neither teacher makes distinctions between quizzes and tests that show students what they still need to master–“formative assessments” and final exams that make a difference in a grade student receives on a report card–“summative assessments,” they express the conflicting values embedded in translating lofty goals for schooling into classroom lessons.


I thank Joanne Jacobs for a post on this subject that got me to think and write about this issue.






Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach

10 responses to “Letting Students Re-Take Tests: A Classroom Dilemma Over Goals for Schools*

  1. David F

    Hi Larry—rather than have students retake a test, I make them do a revision–they have to find out of their textbooks or class materials the appropriate section for the correct answer of the missed question and copy the passage out. This gets submitted for half credit on the test. Students hate doing this, but it helps them learn the correct info and to see what to pay attention to for the next test.

  2. Larry Winkler

    The assignment goals should not be mixed. The primary goal for almost everything must be mastery of the material and demonstration of using that knowledge. If they don’t master the material, it doesn’t matter how timely they get the work done.

    Timeliness is a separate goal, and must be kept separate. The material that has been mastered can be subject to a timeliness goal.

    If the teacher is doing both together, they’re doing it wrong.

  3. This is a great example of why enforced homogeneity of teaching practice is unwise. Reality reflects essential tensions between multiple poles. Some things can be redone. Some things can’t. The variation that exists in loosely coupled educational domains facilitates this plurality.

    Perhaps one thing that is needed in society now, more than ever, is greater comprehension of why pluralism is essential. Institutionalized Education falters when they it is homogeneously conservative (e.g. no retakes) or homogeneously liberal (e.g. retakes). From an evolutionary perspective, societies do as well.

    This is a pretty robust finding from the cultural & multi-level selection evolutionary sciences.

    • Beverly Carter

      Hi Larry,
      For five years, I was part of a team of four teachers who taught U.S. History to about 500 students a year. The heart of our complex program with many choices was a core for each unit of
      a. Common readings for all the class
      ( textbook, documents, and opinions);
      b. Ten question multiple choice tests — main facts, not tricky— in four entirely different versions per unit. Students would pass a test if they missed only one question. If they didn’t pass, they would take another version — until they did.
      C. All students wrote a typed two page opinion paper, including a thesis backed by evidence, and with a conclusion. The would comment and the student rewrite until the teacher determined everything about the assignment was at least 90 percent correct.

      These three requirements were the center of instruction. In addition there were other assignments students could complete (90 percent or better) for a student to improve their grade.

      This individualized system combined with mastery learning, focus on teacher/individual student interaction and strong cooperation among the four teachers resulted in dramatic improvement in student interest and effort than had been observed in the previous traditional classes. Overall, the average score on the school achievement test at the end of the year improved over what had been before.

      The main cost: teacher time to create the curriculum (20 summer hours of group planning time for each of four teachers (donated by teachers); reuse of teacher time before, during, and after school to allow teachers to meet classes, small groups, and individuals.

      Note: The school had a flexible schedule). Students were graded based on points earned ( all possible points for the assignment, if “accepted”; no points if “not accepted”.

      Note: This was written on my cell phone while I am in Hawaii.


      • larrycuban

        That’s an awful lot of comment for a cell phone, Beverly. Thank you for describing what you did when you were teaching high school, Beverly. It surely responds to Chris’s comment. Enjoy the time in Hawaii.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for the comment, Chris.

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