I had an interesting conversation with a teacher I ran into last week at the store: Is the purpose of education to make sure kids learn — in which case testing should be diagnostic — or is it that they learn in a specific way at a specific time?
That question goes to the heart of an AJC news story today on a new retesting policy in Forsyth County where students re-take tests if they get a poor grade fail or perform poorly on the first attempt.
When the reporter doing this story asked me about it, I asked a testing expert who sent me this note:
Re-testing is and has been common practice for a long time. Even back in the 70’s when minimum competency barrier testing started, students were allowed to re-take such things as graduation barrier tests (such as the GHSGT) to try to pass them. There are two major variables in retaking and passing; one of course is additional narrow preparation specifically for the test, the other, of course, is the inaccuracy of the tests (you’ve likely heard about by now the recent research on just how inaccurate “value-added” approaches are using a classroom of tests to evaluate teachers – imagine how inaccurate ONE test is for ONE student).A part of the inaccuracy is the “luck of the draw” of the questions on a test – different forms of a test will have a different selection of questions covering (more or less) the same content; a student may happen to remember one particular factoid that’s on one form but may not have known one on another form. The same issue operates for the SAT – some of the marginal improvement that may happen when a student takes the SAT multiple times is further preparation, but another part of it is simply, again, the “luck of the draw” of the questions on the test.
And now that the story has run, that same expert says:
The practice isn’t new or unique to Forsyth. The public schools in Gwinnett, Cobb and Fulton — and systems across the country — permit retesting. DeKalb, Cherokee and Atlanta schools don’t.
Forsyth County mom Barbara Manley thought the way South Forsyth Middle School allowed kids to retake tests was wrong.
“I just overheard my daughter talking to her friend about her friend getting a 70 on a test and retaking it and getting an A,” Manley said. “My daughter, who is a straight-A student, made an 83 on the test, but because she made higher than an 80, she didn’t get to retake it. She was stuck with an B, and her friend got an A. That’s not right.”
When Manley set out to change the grading system at her daughter’s school, she stumbled onto a philosophical shift in education in which, increasingly, grades are less important than students “mastering” subjects.
But are those policies unfair to students who are hard workers and fast learners and nail the test the first time? And do they undermine student discipline and erode the accuracy of grades as a measurement of a student’s preparedness for college and eligibility for the HOPE scholarship?
Manley took her case to the principal, telling her the grading scheme penalized students who made B’s on the test. “She told me: Students don’t care about grades.’ I told her: ‘You obviously don’t know my daughter.’” When the principal told Manley the grading scheme wouldn’t change, Manley went to school board member Mike Dudgeon, who told her “we’re in the process of taking care of that.”
A month later the policy was changed. Now, if a student at South Forsyth Middle School makes below an 80 and retakes a test, the student can be credited with a score no higher than an 80 even if the student makes a 100.
Lissa Pijanowski, the associate superintendent in Forsyth who oversees the program, said Manley was the only parent to complain to the school board about it. But she acknowledged the school system is fine-tuning the grading scheme — which varies from school to school in the Forsyth system — as a work in progress for the last four years.
“As we roll out new practices across schools it takes time to define a consistent policy after sufficient analysis of the teaching and learning practices,” said Pijanowski of the program Forsyth modeled after the “reteaching/reassessment” program of Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland.
Dudgeon, the school board member, said he’s always had “mixed feelings” about students being allow to retake tests, and has long been in favor of a system-wide grading policy that would be overseen by the school board, but he lost that vote in 2007.
Letting students take a test again teaches them a lesson that doesn’t always apply in “life and the real world where you don’t always get a second chance,” he said.
Parent Mark Rottman, whose daughter is a Forsyth fourth-grader, frets that letting a student take a test again conditions them to bad study habits.
“It also raises questions about teaching methods,” he said. “Are teachers being effective if students don’t get it the first time?”
Fulton County schools offer retesting as one of many “grade improvment opportunities” for students that may also include “a project, an essay, an oral presentation to demonstrate they are continuing to learn the class material,” said Allison Toller, spokeswoman for the school system.
Just as in Forsyth, teachers determine whether a student can retake a test after extra work or whether there’s a better way to improve the student’s grade and comprehension of the material. “The teacher in the classroom has the expertise to determine [if retaking a test] best guides a child toward mastering the material … based on a variety of factors, not the least of which is the learning style of the child,” said Toller.