Can Retakes Actually Raise the Bar?
I know many educators bemoan retakes. It is often seen as giving kids too many chances, not holding them accountable, and generally “lowering the bar.” I’ve heard the warning “There are no retakes in real life!” too many times to count, and I’m always tempted to mention that several of my friends retook their driver’s license tests once or twice, and they are still able to drive cars today.
The way I approach retakes could be described in a lot of ways, but in my opinion, “not holding kids accountable” is not one of them. Through my policy, I essentially tell students I will not accept any score that does not show mastery of the content. Not learning the material, and just moving on anyway, is not an option. If retakes are done right, I believe they can actually RAISE the bar, not lower it.
What Do Grades Mean?
This point of view has led me to look more critically at grades and learning in general. One day before I jumped into my lesson, I told students I wanted to have a conversation with them about grades. I asked the class what the purpose of grades were. The answers ranged from sarcastic (“To make you feel bad!” “To get you in trouble with your parents!”) to more thoughtful (“So we can see how much we actually learned” or “To measure our progress”).
I added my own thoughts by saying I’ve always looked at it as a communication tool, no more, no less. Grades are meant to communicate to students, parents, & teachers how well the students know the content. This is why I never average scores after a retake – if they know 100% of the material now, their grade should say so!
Then I asked students to recall what their report cards looked like in first & second grade. They remembered how it would list areas they were excelling in, which areas needed improvement, and covered all sorts of specific skills and abilities. I asked, “wouldn’t it be nice if our grades gave us that level of detail about what we know and don’t know?” They overwhelmingly agreed.
Unfortunately, middle school & high school grading systems don’t tend to work this way. So, how do we measure our learning more effectively, while still operating under a points & letter grades system?
A First Attempt at Changing Grading
Our next big test was divided into 4 sections, each measuring a separate skill, so my first decision was to grade each section separately rather than giving one aggregate score. This way they would get feedback on each skill individually, and when it came time for retakes, we had a better idea of which skills had been mastered and which needed a revisit.
I was also on a mission to have students focus more on what they learned and less on what score they got. So on each section, students got a ✓+ if their work demonstrated full mastery, a ✓ if it demonstrated that there was room for improvement but they still “got it,” and a “not yet” if it did not demonstrate adequate knowledge of the content. Students weren’t hyper-focused on the score because there wasn’t one, which made them look more closely at the feedback about which areas they demonstrated knowledge and which they needed more practice. From a social/emotional perspective, it also appeared to take some of the stigma out of getting a “bad grade.”
In order to make this system applicable to the gradebook, I still needed to make a ✓+ and ✓ “equal” a score. I decided that a ✓ on each section would be the equivalent of a B, and that each ✓+ would bring them up a few points toward an A+. It ended up looking like this:
Here's Where Retakes Enter the Picture
Now came the challenging part – what about the students who got a “not yet” on one or more of the sections? I decided to build in a “class practice day” the day the tests were returned. Students who scored a ✓ or ✓+ on all their sections practiced content that would prep them for the next unit. Students who received a “not yet” on one or more sections spent their class time practicing those skills. They would then schedule a time to retake those section(s) to improve their score. They would repeat this process as many times as necessary.
At first, I did have a handful of students retake sections 3, even 4 times. This was a necessary growing pain as students slowly learned I wasn’t going to just give them the low score and let them continue on their way. The message became clear: learning this isn’t optional. They each eventually put in the time & effort to learn the content, which may have included coming in for some extra help, asking for further review practice, or working with a friend.
I will admit, when the first round of retakes came in and several of them STILL didn’t demonstrate mastery, I started to panic and question the whole system I had put in place. I’m glad I decided to see it through. I have now used this approach on four assessments, and the amount of retakes students need before they demonstrate mastery is steadily decreasing.
A Clear Message: All Students Are Capable of Learning
This experience has reinforced my belief that retakes “raise the bar” when they’re done right. The message to students says, “I will not accept lower than a B, because a C or below tells me you don’t really know it, and my job is to make sure you do. You will keep working on this until you’ve got it, and I’m here to help you get there.”
It also sends the message that each student is capable of learning the content. No student will arrive at the conclusion “I can’t do it, it’s too hard, I’ll just take the F,” because that option is no longer on the table. It teaches perseverance and self-advocacy. I am seeing students, whom I had originally thought of as unmotivated or apathetic, put in the work once they accept that it’s not going away.
It’s also opened up conversations for students about how they study, and how to explore which study strategies might work best for them. Best of all, my students really like this system – even the frequent re-takers. When asked why, they said the ✓/✓+ system allowed room for a few errors and they felt less like they had to get it perfect. They also appreciated the opportunity to get it right, even amongst complaints about having to retake it again and again.
I am still working out some logistical roadblocks. Building in enough practice time when my curriculum is already on a tight timeline has been a challenge. But if borrowing some days from the curriculum means they will have a more thorough understanding of what we cover, I feel certain that it’s worth it.