Do Test Retakes Lower the Stakes Too Much?


On a recent visit to a parenting message board, I saw questions and skepticism about some teachers' policy of allowing students to retake tests. "Are grades meaningful if students can simply re-take a test?" one person queried. Another asked "Why would students try hard to do well on the initial test if they knew they could just retake it later?" These are some interesting questions to explore. Read on for answers.

A low test score is an indication that a student has not learned the important information in a unit. Whatever the reason why the student has not yet learned the material, mastering it will probably help him to perform better in future units and courses. The opportunity to retake a test gives students a way to get caught up. The chance to raise one's grade by retesting provides further incentive. After all, most students know that they should be invested in their learning but they are not always interested in doing additional work.

Students' perceptions of themselves and their abilities are yet another reason to offer retakes. Research indicates that low grades can impact students' self esteem. Students' beliefs about themselves and their abilities then go on to influence their future academic performance. Giving students a chance to master material and show their knowledge is one way to interrupt the negative cycle of low grades predicting poor academic performance down the road.

So are grades fair if students can just re-take any test? Most teachers will have some grade penalty for students who do not perform well on the initial test. For example, they might cap the maximum possible re-test score at 80 percent or only offer partial credit for each correct answer. A policy of permitting test retakes will allow students to avoid failing grades on report cards, but a serial test retaker usually will not be able to maintain an A or B average.

What about gaming the system? Will some students find it easier to retake a test later rather than studying hard for the first test? This is a possibility under some teachers' systems. However, most students do not want to take the time to sit for two testing periods. Whether they miss class, study hall, or after-school activities for a retake, there is some sacrifice of time. Having seen many teachers' policies come home in my tutees' backpacks, I can also share that students are usually required to complete remediation work and to meet with the teacher before sitting for a test again. I have never had to discourage students from sitting for too many retakes. Rather, I am usually having to convince them that the extra time and work are worthwhile.

There are more compelling reasons for offering test retakes than for prohibiting them. The negative repercussions of retesting that some fear do not tend to become problems in real-world teaching scenarios.

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