Inequitable Grading Practices: Optional Retakes

I polled the large Facebook group of 12,600 language teachers once again, this time on retakes. Retakes aren’t always necessary. However, when we tell a student they can’t redo or retake something, especially if they request it, the message is that it’s OK to not learn the content, or that learning isn’t really a process that matters, or that we get more than one shot at. Students have one chance, on the one day we’ve decided, following the timeline we determined, to show what they know and can do. That’s almost narcissistic, no? How sure are we that we’ve cracked the code of learning and set the perfect date for an assessment? Right…

I’ve sometimes seen retakes referred to as “free passes,” yet the easiest thing we can do is slap a zero on something, tell a student they have to deal with the score they got, maybe followed by “better luck next time,” or shake our head at any redo/retake requests. This actually absolves students from the responsibility of doing anything further, from the actual learning. In such cases, it becomes inequitable NOT to offer redos/retakes. Granted, they still might not be necessary, though, especially if you have a grading system that accounts for continuous learning, etc., but suffice to say that retakes are a good practice, and at times necessary for equity. Retakes are a good idea for anyone averaging all assignments in a category. Those kind of retakes can…”correct”…for the problems associated with lumping every grade together (as seen in this post). But even then, not all retakes are the same.

This was the first large poll that had an overwhelming majority of participants reporting the use of an inequitable practice: optional retakes. That might come as news to some, but this one’s counter-intuitive, so no worries. The next highest number of responses was setting a cut-off for the optional retake, and having no retakes at all. The smallest number of responses went to mandatory retakes—the actual recommended equitable practice—and those who don’t do retakes for various reasons not tied directly to a student’s grade. Let’s unpack all that. But first…

I’m gonna ask readers to pause here and reflect.

I really don’t need to hear right now from anyone getting upset as I share all these best practices that have shown to advance teaching and learning. Don’t take things personally. They’re not. This is a profession, so let’s be professional. This sharing of ideas is done mostly a grassroots thing because teacher education is inadequate and we’ve got some catching up to do, not unlike second language teachers learning well after the fact that input is like 100x more important than any output. Let’s not forget there are tens of thousands of language teachers who were never trained that way, and who still aren’t there yet, either. It follows, then, that we wouldn’t want to be equivalent teachers in the dark about grading, assessing, inequity, and equity. So, if you don’t need to hear about possible inequitable practices you might be using right now—because it’s just too much—that’s fine. Put this on the back-burner and get to it later. Otherwise, let’s look at what makes optional retakes inequitable…

The reason optional retakes are inequitable is that students with the lowest scores tend to be the students who DO NOT opt for retakes, plain and simple. Some students easily do the retake, show their learning, and end up with a higher grade. Others do not, especially when the conditions of when/how to retake are out of their control and obstacles are in the way. This is inequity. The whole situation can also become a matter of personal bias fast, judging students who do not take the optional retakes for one reason or another, fact or fiction. For example, does the student who never schedules retakes after school not care, or do they have stuff going on after school, at home? It’d be wrong to characterize them as unmotivated unless we’re positive that’s what’s going on. From my experience, though, not one single professional comes back with “oh yeah, it turns out the student is just lazy.” Counselors tend to find legit reasons for what teachers often pass off as a lack of care, concern, motivation, etc.

Another reason students don’t opt for the retake could be a matter of low self-efficacy. In fact, it often is. Retakes are designed to give students the opportunity to show us what they actually know and can do regardless of when we decided to give an assessment. That is, students could still be in the learning process, so retakes…”correct”…for our omnibus timing of the assessment and allow individual differences to get full credit. When retakes are optional, though, some students don’t do them because it seems hopeless, especially if the score is quite low and numbers on a scale below 50 are used. Optional retakes don’t work for students with low self-efficacy, which is a considerable amount of those who score low and would benefit from a retake. It’s the classic myth of using grades to motivate students who aren’t motivated by grades, which is…most students with low grades.

On the topic of full credit, there was more than one comment regarding some kind of points recoup from a retake, but not fully (e.g., retakes receive a maximum grade of 80%). Once again, the lens of standards-based grading (SBG) helps us see the inequity, here. If a student meets a standard eventually, there’s no reason for their grade to be lower than their classmates. If they show 100% understanding (or whatever), that’s a 100%. Any alternative punishes students for taking longer with the content, or having a bad day…on the day…we…decided to hold the assessment. Furthermore, what incentive does the student who gets a 75% have to retake their assessment? Probably none. Depending on what the teacher requires for the retake, too, even a score of 60% with max possibility of 80% might not seem worth it. Note how a student could opt out in this case even if they could show 100% understanding given the opportunity. Here, teachers might be confusing “giving an opportunity” with “setting a policy.” Sure, it might be a policy that students have the option of a retake, like the issue of access to certain things that falls short of fully realizing them. Having a policy, however, is a far cry from ensuring students have the space and time to make use of it.

Mandatory Retakes
The main argument with retakes is being sure to provide time for all students to take part. To be equitable, that time needs to be carved out during school. Holding retakes after school is similar to the inequitability of homework. We have no control over the home environment and what takes place outside of school. End of discussion. Also, placing the onus on the student to schedule their optional retake might be a double-whammy. They’ve already scored low. Now the teacher is requiring a certain level of self-advocacy. That’s a quality that would be nice to cultivate, but requiring it in order for students to show us what they know and can do muddies the waters when grading gets into the mix. So, mandatory retakes can solve certain inequities. Of course, this leaves teachers with some tricky decisions to navigate…

The biggest hurdle in offering retakes is logistical. Most teachers get swamped trying to schedule these at random times throughout the day. The best advice I’ve seen is to build retake time right into the class. For example, plan the first 15min. of every single class as retake time. The only thing that changes daily is which students retake what. As long as assessments aren’t…long…you can score these retakes and update the grade within that time, too. This also addresses the culture shift. If students—and you—know that assessments are more or less on a rolling basis, the initial one doesn’t have to be given some unusual fanfare. Consider the Latin MTEL (i.e., MA state’s version of the PRAXIS for licensure). At least at one point, it was notoriously difficult to the point of graduate students scheduling the first one knowing they’d likely take it again and pass the second time. When teachers talk about “real world” skills, they often forget that the world outside of school actually has more redos/retakes than we could possibly list. Very few things are one-and-done high stakes, and even then there’s a considerable amount of maturity and human development that has taken plays.

I also know of teachers who hold full retake days, setting aside a longer amount of time every few weeks for this. Another good solution is including previous content on subsequent assessments in a separately identifiable section. This also helps keep an eye on what you thought was learned, but wasn’t. Rarely is unit content recycled, right? If you plan accordingly, toss some prior unit content onto the next unit’s assessment to see what stuck. And if you get better evidence of something old, update and replace the score. N.B. although it might sound like a minor hassle, grading researchers do recommend grade using change forms for prior, completed quarters. If you think about it, what’s it to us, really?! The decision to update a students Quarter 2 grade—or not—could have a significant impact on things to come. High school is cumulative. Let us not forget that we play a large role in that. Don’t let the fear of an additional task stop you if it’s the right thing to do.

Another hurdle is what to offer as the retake. Naturally, if it’s the exact same assessment then you likely just get slightly better photocopies of knowledge (or whatever) each time, out of sheer memory of what was on the assessment beforehand, but that’s not good data. Of course, most teachers feel they don’t have the time to create multiple variations of any single assessment to account for this. It’s a conundrum for sure. To that, I’d say make assessments less-complex to begin with, or design them in a way that has things you can easily sub out to end up with a different assessment while still testing the same concept. Many teachers report the retake process feeling like a lot to handle until it smooths itself out. If that seems like BS to you, try thinking back to years 1-3 and whether you’d characterize them as “smooth” or “a lot to handle.” Exactly. You made it past the hurdle then, and you will now.

Nota Bene (n.b.)
It should be clear by now for anyone following the polls and subsequent discussions that for every teacher who has shared details about their grading, no two are the same. The polls are used to capture broad categories of grading because it would be impossible to distinguish every policy out there to focus a discussion. Naturally, there’s variation, but the main arguments in all these posts hold up. There’s also a range to how each grading practice plays out in different classrooms, too. For example, giving retakes can differ drastically from one teacher to the next, and there’s no saying either one was implemented according to what’s shown to work best. If research shows one practice to be effective, yet a teacher reports it not working out so well, how sure are we that the teacher had similar conditions as the researchers? How sure is the teacher they had all the other pieces in place for it to work well?

A note on research.

I haven’t been citing much in these posts. Why? There’s honestly just way too much evidence to support these ideas I’m sharing, and I don’t want a series of blog posts reading like journal articles. Seriously, there’s a lot to corroborate from one researcher to the next. For example, the list of grading practices to avoid in Joe Feldman’s Grading for Equity and Rick Wormeli’s Fair Isn’t Always Equal (updated 2018 edition) are astonishingly similar. And those are just two authors within a stack of references I have piling up, each with their own stack of references. If most researchers have found certain grading practices to be inequitable, and teachers are claiming otherwise, there are two possibilities: the teachers can’t see it (or don’t want to), or there are other factors in their teaching that…”correct”…for the inequity commonly found in study after study. If you’ve got those other factors going on, that’s great. If not…

These posts of mine are intended for anyone willing to look into their grading practices for anything causing inequity, and update them accordingly. I, personally, have no need for retakes. If I did, and if I made them optional, in light of what’s discussed above I’d probably reconsider, or carve out another time if things are too crazy at the moment. Things are pretty crazy, too, so back-burner, right? To say that my optional retakes are working out just fine, though, sends the message that I have no interest in changing anything about my grading whatsoever, even if my practices might be inequitable. Teachers feeling that way could do some reflecting and identify any other practices that…”correct”…for inequity. And that kind of reflecting is a good use of time.

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