Defending the Retake

In the past two years I have changed my thinking on test taking and retakes. I used to give kids one shot on a test and they better not blow it. If they could not demonstrate their comprehension on the day I delegated as “test day” they were out of luck. It was a one attempt deal…unless their parents called and complained real loud. J

Over the past couple of years I have reflected much on the approach I take to teaching as well as evaluating learning. I am tasked to teach a certain set of learning standards in my classes every year. At this point in time I am not told how to teach these standards, or how I go about assessing them. Typically, I would give an assessment, grade it, hand it back and move one. End of story.

Now, students are given an unlimited opportunity to retake any assessment or any portion of an assessment. If my goal is to make sure students understand the learning standards, then should it matter how many times they need to do this? I grew up a basketball player and know that if I was assessed on my shooting ability before I was warmed up, I would fail miserably. If a student can get themselves to a point of understanding, then why does it matter how many times or how long it takes them to do this?

With all that being said, many skeptics claim students will just memorize the test and take advantage of this retake policy. Yes, if I were to just give the same test back to a kid every single time without any additional prep work that would be true. However, that is not what I do. If a student wants to do a retake there is a reflection form they fill out that asks them some questions pertaining to their failed attempt and what they will do to prepare for a second try. As part of this additional work I have a series of screencasts students can watch as well as numerous re-teaching opportunities. They must prove to me they have gone and done something differently to prepare for a second assessment attempt.

In addition to the prep work a student will do prior to a retake, the assessments themselves are not always the same. Depending on the student, I will often just do an oral retake at my desk. I will just have a conversation with the student and ask a series of questions aimed at assessing the student’s comprehension of the concept. Most of my students prefer this method as it is quick, easy and a natural form of communication. If students prefer to write their answer I might give them the same assessment, a new assessment, or ask them how they want to show me they understand the concept.

Bottom line is learning happens all the time but rarely at the same time. With that in mind, I do offer retakes and will continue to do so. If I don’t offer a retake or re-teaching, then the learning stops the moment the student hands in the test. 


Anonymous said...

Thanks for blogging about this topic. I've gone through a similar transformation in my fifteen years in the classroom. I first felt that "re-dos" didn't prepare students for the "real world" and giving them chances to rework essays was somehow less rigorous. I now know better.

I've taught in both the AP and IB programs--the two most rigorous levels of high school English work, in my opinion--and in each case I always allow students to revise their essays at least once. And, the new grade replaces the old one.

What I found was not a "slippage" in first drafts...students turning in less-than-stellar early work. Instead, I found that students first drafts were still their best efforts, but that their revised was more effective in helping them reach new levels of mastery.

What's more rigorous? Telling a student "Better luck next time" or "Do it again and do it better." Allowing retakes increases rigor and helps more students achieve mastery.

Rick Wormeli has this useful video on the subject. In it he makes the point that doctors, lawyers, pilots...virtually any profession where real world testing is employed...allows for retraining and "retakes" when standards of proficiency are not met:

Anna Kapnoullas said...

I was thinking about this the other day and I came to the same conclusion that it no set of curriculum or rules (that I am aware of) mandate that a student must demonstrate a certain standard in the first instance. I think it is important to ensure they achieve it without prompting during the assessment, that is, the student can independently demonstrate the standard during assessment without teacher assistance. Aside from that caveat, I think it is our duty as teachers to give students every opportunity to demonstrate their achievement and those who keep trying until they do probably end up learning more than those who achieved it on the very first attempt. Thanks for the post,

Janet Abercrombie said...

Good thoughts. Teachers also (unintentionally) grade students' speed of learning (rather than level of learning) when they average grades.

If, at the end, all students know all the stuff, why would those that learned it faster get a better grade?

Some may have learned it faster because they put in more effort upfront. Give them points for effort and praise them in the anecdotal comments.

I always have to ask myself: Does this grade reflect knowledge, speed, and/or effort.

Janet |

Curt Rees said...

I wish all teachers had this same attitude and approach about assessing students. Some are too wrapped up in making kids respond in a specified manner and that frequently impedes the true picture of what a kid truly knows. Rick Wormeli has a series of videos on YouTube that really speaks to this. Should be required watching for all teachers.

Crystal Kirch said...

Great post. This is something I have definitely thought through in the last year or so. Most of my colleagues are still in the "one try" or even just "one retake at a specific time set by me". This year I completely changed (with the blessing of my administration) and allowed full retakes of all quizzes and tests as many times as the student wants for 100% credit. I'm happy with it for the most part.

I like your notes about requiring the assignments and screencasts. I tell my students they have to go back and re-work problems and give them some to work through, but I don't always follow through on exactly what I expect from them to prepare. I think they need that guidance. I like requiring them to re-watch the screencast lessons because then you know it is more than just them "trying problems" again - they are getting a little more learning input.

Do you have a set form that you use for students to fill out for the reflection? I would love to see a copy if so.

Do you have students sign up for a retake time, or how do you monitor them not waiting until the end of the semester and you getting overwhelmed?

Do you ever have a limit to how many times they can retake?

Josh Stumpenhorst said...


I do have a form that I use and it is very generic...just a place for them to fill in details about the assessment as well as explain what they did to prepare for a retake. It also has them write about what they did originally that did not work out so well.

I give them unlimited time and attempts but rarely do I see students need more than one retake and often it is within a week of the original assessment.

Riley said...

I think the assessment itself should be almost immaterial. It makes sense to let a student take a test again to show that he improved in the relevant skill areas. But why does he have to take that test again if he can show that he learned in some other way? If a student fails test 1 but aces tests 2, 3, and 4 on the same skills, will you give him a 100%, or will you keep him at 75% until he retakes test 1?

10 years later, the skills matter, and the tests don't.

Cory Plough said...

Josh - thanks for sharing this strategy. I have been teaching in a blended learning program for the last 8 years. All but one of a student's courses is online. About 6 years ago our charter programu teachers had a lot of debate about this topic because our program wasn't working and we were trying new things. I was a on the pro-retake side of the debate like you are. Finally, our administration decided on a retake policy that all teachers now have to implement.

Kids are given two attempts on each online quiz. The goal after the first attempt, especially with the essay questions, is to provide comments and pointed feedback so they have more info going into the second attempt. I try to design the test questions and the feedback I give as teaching tools not just ways for kids to prove they already know it all before they attempt it.

Glen Westbroek said...

Thanks for a well written post. I've followed the same program for a couple of years now. I have the full support of my administration as well as 99% of the parents. (One mother wants her son to lose points for learning material at a different time than when it is assigned.) If my philosophy is "all students CAN learn," then it is my job to help these youth accomplish that.

Stephanie said...

I understand what you’re saying about stopping learning once the test is over if we do reteach material; however, I’m not sure I agree with your opinion on test retakes. In life, there are not many opportunities for “re-takes.” If we allow students to retake any assessment at any time are we preparing them not only for college, but for life? Also, if students know they are able to redo assignments or retake assessments, what is going to keep them from wanting to do well the first time? I work in a school that allows retakes and I often see students not study the first time around, knowing they are able to retake the assessment if they do poorly. I don’t think this encourages students to want to succeed the first time around. How do we keep this from happening? Don’t get me wrong, I know everyone has a bad day and should have an opportunity to prove what they have learned and what they know; however, I do not believe students should be allowed to redo assignments and retake assessments at any time, under any circumstances.

Josh Stumpenhorst said...


Thanks for taking the time to comment. I would ask you a few say there are no retakes in life. Yet, I would disagree. When I am late for a meeting I get a chance to be back on time the next time around. You can get an extension even on your taxes from the IRS. If you work in construction and make a mistake you get a chance to redo it.

While I understand your fears about this so called "real life" it just isn't true. Even if it was, school is the place where kids should be able to retake, retry and learn through that process.

Glen Westbroek said...

I learned that my state allows those taking a written driver's license exam three opportunities to pass the exam before they are required to pay to take it again. I think this real life example shows the idea is to promote learning. I teach students responsibility by expecting all work must be completed and turned in.

Doug said...

Hi Stephanie,
I tell my students that re-do's are always at my discretion. If a student abuses the system by blowing off the first attempt at a standard, I may tell them they are out of luck at doing a re-do for that one standard. I think that would help prevent the "don't try the first time" abuse.

Anonymous said...

Thank you- a teacher who finally makes sense. Although I am skeptical about unlimited retakes, I cannot recount the frustrations I've endured as a student regarding retakes. I failed two math quizzes a day or two after being taught the material (by a teacher trainee, mid you) and making a genuine effort. However, my teacher adamantly refuses to provide a retake and I can't tell if he is too lazy to make one or genuinely doesn't want to provide one.In short, I'm glad to see a teacher with a refreshing view on retakes. I'm sure your students learn--and their grades reflect it.

- High school student