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Avoid Penalizing Multiple Attempts at Mastery

EducationWorld is pleased to feature a variety of book excerpts in collaboration with Stenhouse Publishers. The following excerpt comes from Fair Isn’t Always Equal: Assessing and Grading in the Differentiated Classroom, by Rick Wormeli (2006). The book retails for $25 ($22.50 for e-book) and is available on the Stenhouse Web site.

For more great tips from this book, check out: Differentiating Student Assessments and Dual Grading: Performance and Progress.

Not allowing multiple attempts at mastery is another way of saying "We don’t allow work or assessments to be redone for full credit." This article offers a new approach to “do-overs” that inspires students to higher learning.

Many of us have said the following to students: “You can redo the test, but the highest grade you can earn on it is a 'B' out of deference to those who studied hard and achieved an 'A' the first time around,” “For every problem you go back and correct, I’ll give you half a point of credit,” or “You can retake the test, but I will average the new grade with the original one.”

If we hold such a philosophy and a student has been giving sincere effort during the unit, we are holding the student’s development against him or her. This is an unfair stance. The truth is, not all students are ready to receive what we have to offer, nor are they ready to learn at the same pace as their classmates. Even adults learn at varying paces from one another. Adolescents and young adolescents have amazingly varied rates of learning—they are all in dramatic transition. What sticks with one student won’t stick with another, and even within the same student, there is tremendous inconsistency. A student who always “gets it” early in the unit or year suddenly has trouble with something else later in the year, and it’s not clear why.

The fastest growth spurt in human development is from age zero to two. We change more during this time physically, emotionally, and intellectually than at any other time outside of the uterus, and the pace of development of any one portion of the mind or body is different from person to person. Given this, it would be rather absurd, even abusive, to demand that all young humans recite the alphabet in the eighth hour of the fifth day of the tenth month after the second year of their lives. Most toddlers are not in school, however, so this variance doesn’t pose any grading concerns.

Now, advance forward to young adolescence and adolescence, which is the next most dramatic transformation--physically, emotionally, and intellectually--of our lives. It is just as absurd, even abusive, to demand that all 180 students we teach demonstrate 100 percent proficiency with 100 percent of the test in this exact test format at 10:00 a.m. on this one Tuesday in the second week of October. How arbitrary and without justification it is to declare that the third of February is when everyone will be at the same point in their mastery of The Federalist Papers, and there’s no chance earlier or later to demonstrate and be given credit for full mastery?

About Stenhouse Publishers

Stenhouse publishes professional development books and videos by teachers and for teachers. Their titles cover a range of content areas -- from literacy and mathematics to science, social studies, the arts, and environmental education -- as well as a variety of topics, including classroom management, assessment, and differentiation.

Imagine the negative impact on a student who needs another route, a few more examples, or another few days to process information before successfully capturing Boolean logic or a geometry proof. The teacher who teaches the unit of study but then tests the student before he or she has mastered everything makes a common and an understandable mistake.

We can’t know the perfect time to assess every student’s level of proficiency. This isn’t a problem, however, because we use that feedback from the initial assessment, reteach or assist the student, and allow him or her to try again. We’re out for students’ success, not just to document their deficiencies.

The ineffective and unethical response, however, would be to get in the way as the child strives to learn and demonstrate understanding to the fullest extent. The teacher who denies students the option to redo tasks and assessments in order to reach a standard of excellence has to reconsider his/her role: Is the teacher in the classroom to teach so that students learn, or is he or she there to present curriculum, then hold an assessment “limbo” yardstick and see who in the class can bend flexibly and fit within its narrow parameters?

Reality Check

Middle- and high-school teachers can’t teach children individually all the time. We could never give each student a test on a different day according to when he or she is ready. We teach the masses. In order to not lose our sanity, we have to make and hold some deadlines. That’s fine, but when it comes time to generate the letter grade that will declare mastery or lack thereof, we have to respect the student’s individual development and consider that everyone learns at a different pace and in a different manner and, perhaps more important, that these variances are not setbacks, negative, or punishable.

Education expert Dr. Nancy Doda puts it succinctly: “We don’t want to admonish students for not learning at the same pace as their classmates. We don’t want it to become, ‘Learn or I will hurt you.’” When we hold students to one moment in one particular day of the school year to demonstrate mastery in a topic, we are telling them that they must learn at the same rate, to the same extent, and with the same tools and resources as their classmates, or they will suffer. This isn’t teaching."

If we really want students to reflect on their mistakes and revise their thinking and/or performances, they have to know their efforts will count. If we want them to heed our feedback on their work, they have to know that it can be used to improve their status.

Experts remind us that teachers who are focused on students’ growth and mastery usually allow work and assessments to be redone. They say that teachers who are primarily focused on how students do in comparison to others (a limiting reference for differentiated instruction teachers) usually do not allow work and assessment to be redone.


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