Assess this

Even on a cloudy day, I'll keep my eyes fixed on the Sun.

-Cage the Elephant

Traditional Assessment Practices

Those of you who know me know that I like to take a look at what we do in education and ask "why?".   Whey do we do what we do? Why is it an accepted practice? Does what we do actually meet the goals we have set forth? Today, I'd like to discuss my views and practices regarding student assessment. I'm not talking about the high-stakes testing that everyone dreads.  I'm talking about the day-to-day formative and summative assessments that occur in my classroom and in classrooms like your own.

Traditionally (especially with summative assessments), teachers have (for over a century) given students the assessment, graded it and returned it.  The grade the student received is the one with which they are stuck. If they failed a test then they have an F and the class moves on to the next lesson and the next assessment. This is the model with which most educators, as well as most parents, are familiar.  It's how many of us were assessed in school and to do anything that detracts from that is to ruffle feathers and cause discomfort as people realize that something is not conforming to their preconceived notions of how students should be taught.

Assessment Practices in my Classroom

As a student, I never liked the traditional assessment practices.  As a teacher, I like them even less. Examining the literature on the topic, as well as looking at theories of learning and development, I came to the conclusion that a "Test once and let the grades sort them out" approach was not only limited but detrimental to student learning.

A student who struggles with material and fails a test needs to learn that material. Unfortunately, the traditional method allows teachers to just move on and assign extra homework (something I am against) or studying on the topic. Maybe, if the child is lucky the teacher will have some time for one-on-one instruction. However, in reality, most teachers are already overwhelmed and the student will fall behind.

In my classroom, I have created the policy that students may re-take an exam as many times as they like in order to prove mastery. When I grade assessments I speak one-on-one with any student who received a C or below.  I tell them that I highly recommend that they re-take the exam when they feel they are ready for it.

This has changed everything.

Students who once were afraid to take tests and would be anxious to the point of nausea no longer feel that way.  Students realize that the test is not the final answer regarding their grades. Instead, it is an opportunity to share what they know.  I tell them the test is just a snapshot of what they know at this moment in time.

I have had students who have failed a test 3 times come back to me to take it a 4th time saying "I know I've got it this time!"  It becomes a challenge that they have internalized and one that they hope to overcome.

Students who receive a B- or above grade are also welcome to take a test to improve their grade. I have also had this happen. In moving to this model, I have noticed that my pedagogy becomes more student-centered. Yes, it is hard to create different iterations of a test and grade it multiple times... but I am not here to make my job easier (it's nice when I can) I am here to help students learn and helping students learn is a hard job.  It's supposed to be. Every human is different and often you have 30+ humans in your classroom with different realities at home and at school. Helping each one grow beyond where they were yesterday is the goal. My job title is "Teacher".  That means that, at the end of the day, I am here to teach students... to help them learn. I am not there to punish them, I am not there to say "you didn't get this right so its an F let's move on".  No.  My job is to get back up as many times as necessary when we fall off our horses.

But they'll want me to do it too!

I've had some colleagues question my practice... the statements that usually come forth are "well if you do that, then the parents are going to want me to do it too."

Okay... I don't see the issue.  As with anything in education I have always believed that you should know why it is you do what you are doing.  I have a very solid foundation on why I allow infinite re-takes (unless report cards have come out... at that point I have to put a mark down that is final).  However, if you are set on giving one test and only one test (that's fine) just know why you're doing it. Back it up. It is okay for different teachers to have different teaching philosophies and practices.  Be able to articulate that to the parent that wants you to change.  Or... maybe give it a try... see what happens when you allow students to fail.  I call if failing forward. Each attempt is a step toward mastery. It fosters a growth mindset. If your argument is that you are afraid parents might want you to do it too, then maybe it's not the best argument.

I have also heard "But if the students can take it so many times then they won't care about the assessment because they know it doesn't matter. It's okay to fail."  I'd say this is half right. Yes, my students know that it's okay to fail. But they also care about the work they are doing.  They'd much rather not have to re-take an assessment if they don't have to do that. This practice fosters a deeper caring about learning because they know that learning is the ultimate outcome. Let's put this into a context that might make a little more sense... If you go to the DMV and apply for a driver's license you can re-take that test as many times as necessary until you've developed the necessary mastery.  They do make you wait between tests so that you can work on your skills but they don't just say "that's it you failed the first time, we'ree moving on and you'll never drive again." No. That doesn't happen. And everyone who wants a drivers license cares about taking the assessment.

Your Thoughts...

What are your thoughts about the practice of allowing infinite re-takes?  Have you tried this in your classroom? Do you do something different? Do you have any questions about this? Please share your thoughts by writing a comment below.

2 thoughts on “Assess this

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