Redos and Retakes? Sure. But don't forget to Loop!

As the Standards Based movement has grown, allowing students to Redo assignments and Retake tests has become a rather common practice.  Blogs, articles, books, and workshops have focused on the importance of Redos and Retakes (R/R) and how to practically implement R/R at the classroom and school level.  Divisions, schools, and teachers have created policies that detail, rather specifically, the conditions through which students might R/R assignments.

The progression from Standards Based philosophies to the practice of R/R goes something like this:

  1. Students learning content and skills is the mission, therefore, we can't be satisfied with students not learning.
  2. Since all students do not learn at the same pace, when we become aware that students have not mastered specific content standards, we should give students additional opportunities to learn those standards.
  3. Low scores/grades/marks/feedback commonly indicate that a student hasn't mastered content or skills.
  4. When students have low scores/grades/marks/feedback, we should provide them R/R opportunities so they can improve the scores/grades/marks/feedback.
  5. Improved scores/grades/marks/feedback indicate that students have learned the content and/or skills.

Based on what I have seen working with outstanding teachers in my own school (Salem High in Salem, VA) and from what I have learned as I have traveled around the country helping schools with their assessment needs, I would like to make the following recommendation:

Let's remember that R/R is not the ONLY way - and often not the best way - to implement Standards Based philosophies.

Let me clarify: I will not be suggesting in the paragraphs to come that R/R practices should stop, but that:

  • We need to make sure R/R fall in their proper and appropriate context, and that
  • Looping is a teaching and assessment practice that deserves strong consideration because it keeps the focus on learning better than most R/R practices do.

The phrase Standards Based Grading (SBG) is used quite commonly to refer to the use of Assessment FOR Learning practices based on standards.  However,  the phrase Standards Based LEARNING (SBL) is more instructionally-relevant to use since this keeps us focused on the goal and the mission of learning rather than on the significantly less important focus of grading.  

Regardless of your choice of terms - SBG or SBL - the most important aspect of the Standards Based movement is not any one specific practice but instead how educators think about assessment.  Teachers trying to grow in their use of assessment must focus first on the way they THINK about assessment rather than than on HOW they will assess or WHAT assessments they will use.  The Standards Based movement is not really about grading; it's about learning.  But the associated increase in learning is dependent on a change in thinking.  

  • If a teacher thinks about learning primarily in terms of students demonstrating mastery of individual specific standards (as opposed to students increasing their overall aggregate "average" grade) then a teacher will communicate with students and parents in terms of individual specific standards mastery.  
  • If a teacher communicates in terms of individual specific standards mastery, then students and parents are more likely to think about progress in terms of individual specific standards mastery, rather than increasing their overall aggregate average.
  • If students and parents think about progress in terms of individual standards mastery, then they are more likely to communicate in those terms, as well.

The problem with typical R/R practices is that they have a tendency to cause all of us - educators, students, and parents - to think and communicate in terms of grades rather than learning.

It's natural for students and parents to be hyper-focused on grades, and it would be unrealistic to expect them to unilaterally take steps to shift that focus to learning.  The perceived benefits and consequences of grades are too immediate and too ingrained in our culture.  If learning is ever to take its rightful place in relation to grading, it will have to be the educators in the schools who set that tone.  Anything educators do that encourages or reinforces the focus to be on grades will run counter to what we want most - to have a culture that values learning about all else.

While the typical reason educators embrace R/R is a desire for students to learn, too often the reality is that R/R reinforces the students' focus on grades above all else.  If I'm a student and I find out I have a low score/mark/feedback, my natural inclination is to consider how that impacts my grade.  When a teacher or a school or a division creates a policy that gives me the "right" to retake an assignment, what I tend to hear is that I have the "right" to increase my grade.

The underlying problem with many R/R policies is that they are examples of what could be called "After-the-Fact" Standards Based assessment.  In other words, now that we've finished this unit/topic and you have scored at a level that you (or your parent) don't approve of, you can go back and fix your grade by R/R after-the-fact.  

If you're exploring incorporating Standards Based assessment practices into your classroom, starting with figuring out an R/R policy/procedure would be a mistake.  Begin by growing in your understanding of SBL philosophy so you will be able to THINK in a Standards Based manner and be prepared to apply SBL logistics to the myriad of situations that inevitably will arise.  

The power of assessment is greatly enhanced when, rather than after-the-fact, Standards Based teaching and assessment practices - such as Looping - are interwoven into the fabric of the learning process.

Here's what happens when a teacher gains a great understanding of SBL philosophy:

  • A teacher who THINKS in terms of standards mastery will base instruction and communication on standards.  
  • Then, because the teacher THINKS this way, communicates this way, and wants to ensure that students master standards, the teacher will routinely - probably daily - assess students to gauge the level of student learning.  
  • This will cause individual standards to be assessed multiple times and, more than likely, through multiple measures.
  • Because measuring progress towards individual standards mastery is important, the teacher will want to record these measurements in a manner that allows him/her to see how each student is progressing toward each standard - rather than simply averaging all work completed.

There will come a time when the teacher will move on to new content, however, the students' progress toward past standards will remain in front of that teacher and the students as a constant reminder that some students - maybe many students - have still not mastered standards at a satisfactory level.  This leaves the teacher with 1 of 3 options:

  1. Don't worry about the standards not satisfactorily mastered.  
    This should be obviously unacceptable but needs to be included since it is a theoretical possibility.
  2. Wait until the end of the year and then go back and review past standards.
    This often helps students "cram" for an end-of-course test but does little to move learning into long-term memory.
  3. Throughout the year, continuously review previously taught concepts, content, and skills.

For the remainder of this post we will refer to this Option 3 as Looping.

The Looping concept - continuously reviewing previously taught concepts, content, and skills - is a teaching and assessment strategy with greater potential to increase student learning than R/R practices alone.  Here's why:

Looping focuses on learning while R/R tend to focus on grades.

Furthermore, Looping is teacher-driven, while R/R is often student (or even policy) driven.

As previously stated, R/R tend to happen after-the-fact once students (or parents) are unsatisfied with grades.  R/R policies in schools tend to focus on students having a right to something.  This often leads to unnecessary tension as students "exercise their rights."  However, even when tension does not occur, when R/R is the major standards based thinking is implemented, students tend to focus it primarily as a way to improve grades.

Looping, on the other hand, is all about learning.  Looping is not dependent on students (or parents) wanting, after-the-fact, to improve a grade.  Instead, Looping is teacher-driven and built into the teacher's normal planning.  It's organic, rather than after-the-fact.  It's based on the idea that repetition is essential to learning, so teachers who want students to learn will naturally keep looping back to topics that need reinforcement.  Looping doesn't require a teacher to constantly grade and re-grade assignments, a logistic that can often turn R/R into a burden.    

With Looping, the teacher controls:

  • THE WHAT: 
    Looping occurs on topics that the teacher knows - based on assessment data - need to be re-addressed and re-assessed, 
  • THE WHEN: 
    Looping occurs as frequently as the teacher's assessment data shows looping is needed,
  • THE WHO:
    Looping makes sure that all students in a class - not just those who come and ask for R/R - are continuously enhancing their skills. and
  • THE HOW:
    Looping can be happen through repeat lessons, additional practice, old questions being included on new tests, whole class activities, differentiated assignments, daily quizzes, etc.

Looping doesn't require a policy.  Looping just requires a teacher who:

  • assesses regularly,
  • knows how students are progressing toward standards mastery, and
  • understands that humans learn through repetition and practice.

So does this mean that teachers should stop allowing students to R/R assignments?  Absolutely not.  Teachers should use their professional judgement to determine when R/R are most appropriate.  But R/R must be applied in a manner that supports the philosophy of SBL, rather than as one-size-fits-all approach.  

What I'm recommending is this.  As educators who value learning above grading, let's:

  • First think in a Standards Based manner - let's think in terms of how to teach standards, assess based on standards, and organically and regularly Loop back to standards so students get maximum practice and repetition.
  • Put into daily practice the seemingly obvious fact that the more times a student encounters content, practices, and is assessed, the more likely the student is to actually learn and remember.
  • Make sure we don't allow the quest for grades to trump learning.
  • Not create policies that tie teachers' hands - such as "thou shall give a retake whenever students request one" - but instead, let's encourage teachers to use their expertise to help students learn.
  • Remember the purpose of Assessment FOR Learning - we assess so students will learn rather than assess to create grades.

Got any thoughts?

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  • Thanks, Michael!  That's high praise, and I appreciate it.  Keep in touch.

  •  I really like the looping aspect, often lost in practice. Having heard you on many occasions and through this link have made me a better teacher.

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