In my education program, my professor would tell us a great analogy about grades and retakes.  She said that as teachers we should allow students to retake assessments, so they can continue to practice and improve with the language.  We want students to practice so well that they can attain a proficiency with the language.  Then, she made this analogy: if we were going to jump out of a plane, we would want to have the person who got an A in parachute packing, packing our parachutes instead of someone who earned a C.  Even if the person had to keep practicing until they earned an A, we would rather have the person who kept practicing until they earned an A instead of the person who got a C and then went to work.  Therefore, we want to let our students practice as much as we can to make them as proficient as we can.  We frequently discussed “how well is your parachute packed?”  It made sense for me; however, it was difficult to implement.  As my assessments after college mainly relied upon discrete grammar and vocabulary, it didn’t make sense to retake assessments.  I wasn’t sure how to recycle the material well enough for a retake.  

This year, I shifted my grading to focus more on each mode (presentational, interpersonal and interpretive) and less on completion work like classwork or homework.  I wanted to help my students to not feel like everything was riding on one assessment or two and I was a bit nervous to make this transition.  Wendy Farabaugh mentioned on Twitter that she gives assessments back and asks students if they are satisfied with their grade.  If not, they can do it again.  A light bulb went off, and I decided that I would try retakes this year.  As my assessments shifted to being more performance based and less discrete points, I was happy to let students retake it, and I have seen great results for a variety of reasons.

When we assess, our assessment timelines are built based on the school timeline and reporting guidelines.  We assess when we feel like we have covered material sufficiently and the majority of students are prepared, but some students may need more time or practice to truly attain what they need to be successful.  While I still have to give assessments based on a certain timeline, allowing retakes gave my students the freedom to improve and progress at their own pace.  I also became less concerned with my timeline of assessments and more concerned about my student’s improvement.  

However, I had some concerns that I am sure other teachers have when they think about retakes on assessments:

Would everyone just want to retake assessments to get one or two more points?  This really didn’t happen.  Over the course of the trimester, I had about six students retake assessments.  Plus, if students really wanted to improve their grade, they had to change their performance based on the rubric.  They had to improve their writing by including more details or utilize more vocabulary in their speaking responses.  Those significant improvements in their proficiency are worth the retake to me.

Would I take the first or second grade?  I would take whatever grade was the highest.  Ideally, they would improve.  In most cases, they did; I only had one student who did not improve.  However, I saw some improvement on his later interpretive work.  I do not believe that retaking a test should be considered a penalty.  These students want to improve, so I should do everything to encourage that.  This ended up being a reoccurring trend where I saw later improvement on the same type of assessment.  One student wanted to retake her interpersonal assessment.  She improved significantly on the original assessment, and she also did well on the next interpersonal assessment.

Couldn’t students just not prepare for the first assessment then take a later one?  Does anyone really want to fail- even the first time?  They are not blowing off my assessments to get an easier one later. Overall, I did not see a drop in first assessment scores when I gave the option of retakes.  In addition, performance assessments are hard to blow off.  They are a reflection of the students’ performance on a given topic based on their acquisition from class.  While I like students to look over their notes, I don’t expect students to really cram before an assessment.  Normally if a student struggles is can be because he or she needs more input or practice with a topic.  As we continue to build on each unit, students’ development and acquisition occur at different rates, so if they have accomplished my goals for the last unit a week into the new unit, I am happy to let them show off what they have learned.  

Did I require students to submit something to retake an assessment?  For me, this was an extra step that I didn’t need.  A pure desire to improve was really all it took for them to “earn” a retake.  And in theory, being in Spanish class each day was probably enough to really help them improve in each domain.  If I really wanted to add an extra step, I could have students reflect on how they can improve for the next assessment.  But if I want reflection, I would rather the whole class reflect instead of just a student who didn’t do as well.

Did it take a lot of time on my behalf? Well… this was the one result that I haven’t resolved.  I did have to find another article on Frida Kahlo for one of my interpretive assessments.  But I did feel that the desire to have my students improve is sometimes worth a little sweat on my behalf as well.  If my two goals (grading for proficiency and striving to have students constantly improve) were something that I really wanted to achieve, I was willing to dedicate a little extra time to find a new article or video.  However, if students wanted to redo an interpersonal or presentational assessment, I slightly change the questions or the prompt.  These two tasks do not require a lot of time and effort on my part.

Out of all of my doubts, I saw large gains on behalf of my students.  And I believe that I am continuing to send an important message to my students- that I believe that they ALL can improve and learn Spanish and that I acknowledge that it is not a linear process.  I believe that I am preparing them to really pack those parachutes well!  And thank you Dr. Ruth Ferree for sharing this idea with me that I can finally implement after 10 years- and for packing my parachute, so I was ready to jump out of a plane into the world of teaching!

Maris is a Lower School and Middle School Spanish teacher at an independent school in Washington, DC. Although…