Monday, March 4, 2013

Second Chances

The following is a guest post from Jeff Fiscina, one of my math teachers at New Milford High School.

Today is the day after a test.  I walk around to hand back tests to the students. Students, who did well, put a smile on their faces.  Students, who did poorly, sink into their chairs in displeasure.   I come back to the board to review the problems which created the most difficulty.  The students who did well are so excited they don’t want to listen.  The students who did poorly are so upset with themselves they can not concentrate.  So, what am I doing?  I’m pretty much talking to no one.  I’m not helping those students who received a bad grade and the students who were successful are now bored.

Image credit: Steven Depolo

After about two and a half years of doing this in my classes, I realized something must change.  Some students were not successful on a test.  The only way they can help their grade is to do better on the next test.  But they need the material from the previous test to help them.  So what service am I providing to my failing students?  How am I motivating them to do better?  I used to say, “You are going to need to learn this to do well on the midterm.  Don’t just put the test away and not look at it.  Study it and learn from it.”  After thinking about how I would take that statement as a student, I realized how little impact it actually has.  Something needed to change in my grading philosophy, and change fast.

Everyone deserves a second chance, right?  You fail your driver’s test; don’t you get another shot at it?  You do poorly on the SAT’s; you can take them again right?  So for a test in class, why are students only getting one chance?  After much questioning, research, and consideration, I decided to implement a re-take policy for my classes.

After students receive their test and are not happy with the score, they can come to me and inquire about a re-take.  I give the student a contract that lists the steps they must follow in order for the opportunity for a retake.  The contract must be signed by the student and their parent/guardian.  The steps are as follows:
  1. Get the test paper signed by a parent/guardian
  2. Attend extra help session for corrections on the test
  3. Complete given assignment on your own (if necessary)
  4. Make an appointment after/before school to take your re-take
(You can see my full written policy and contract HERE)

Once students take the re-take, I look at how much knowledge they have gained, and use my professional judgment to assign a new grade.  Students are appreciative of the second chance and are taking full advantage of it. Students are recognizing how much more work they need to put in if they are unsuccessful.  This gives them some motivation to do well the first time.  And it also gives them an opportunity to right the wrong.

What is our goal as educators?  My goal is for every student to have the best opportunity at succeeding in my class.  If my students have only one chance at every test, then they really don’t have the best opportunity at succeeding.  I want my students to learn and one of the best ways to learn is from your mistakes.  I have a little saying I like to use:  “Failure is not an ending, it’s a beginning.”


  1. Fantastic idea! I tried implementing this in my class a few years ago. The students were appreciative for the opportunity. However, some others in my department were not on board with my idea and didn't want to put in the extra time to do the retakes. Since we have to all "be the same", I had to quit doing this for the entire class. Ugh... Not much motivation for my kids.

    When I did this method of retaking, I would allow the students to get up to an 80% on their retake. However, I wasn't ever really satisfied with this. Should there be a cutoff? What if a student didn't prepare the first time because they knew they could get an "A" the second time? What are your thoughts? Thanks for your post.

  2. My guess is that students are happy to have this option. If we assume that the primary goal of assessment is to provide feedback for students so that they can better meet learning goals, then retakes make a huge amount of sense. To that end, it strikes me that when we do need to report formal progress, we should give priority to the most recent evidence. We shouldn't set a limit to the grade that can be achieved or average the first test with the retake. Their shouldn't be any penalty tied to the first performance. The student may have needed the two tries to fully grasp the concepts and skills and they were willing to put in the required time to do so.

    To Kyle's question about not preparing and getting the "A" on the second chance, the opportunity cost (if we want to call it that) is time. Students doing this make a choice to extend their study period at the expense of doing other things. There is an extra cost of teacher time, but it's in the service of student learning, which is the whole point here. Also, important to have the support of school leadership. I hope Jeff's explorations inspire his other colleagues to go down this path with him.

  3. I really appreciate you sharing this concept. I had a college professor who did a similar system for my college algebra class. We were allowed to retake our Friday quizzes the following Friday. The great thing was if you scored high enough on the first test, you didn't have to come to class on the day of retakes. You could even come in to retake it if you desired a higher grade.

    I'd like to know what grade level you teach that you apply this system?


  4. Great Post. As far as the grading of the re-take, I understand most teachers feelings about setting a maximum to the achievable grade. I would offer this counter-point: If the student demonstrates the content mastery to achieve an A on the re-take, is his mastery any less than the student who achieved the A on the first test? Does the fact that he took longer to attain the mastery translate to deserving of a lower grade? I would argue that by meeting the criteria above, he actually worked harder for his grade than the student who got it on the first try.

    For students who would "tank" the first time b/c they knew they could get an A on the re-take, I would say two things. First, I don't really think many students would purposefully go through a long re-take policy which involves corrections and a second assignment if they could score well on the first test. Second, if this truly is a concern, the re-take does not need to be the same test. It could be a different version of the test, a project or any other type of assessment that would measure your desired learning outcomes.

    1. Your post and more specifically your counter-point hit it right on the head. I was that student who needed more time. I was that student who had to work harder than most for that acceptable grade. I don't think I ever received an A on my re-takes, I was just grateful that I didn't have to keep the F. Now, as an educator, I am constantly considering the decisions that I make for my class, and whether or not it's the best decision for my students. Jeff went a step further and considered the reality of how life actually is outside of the high school, the vast land of "second chances" that we are allowed to have as adults. Those kids who are building those skills by working harder now are really the lucky ones in the future- they just don't know it yet, but I do :)

  5. I love the 2nd chance approach. However, I don't think the previous grade should disappear. Using a grade as a percentage point for mastery tells you to what degree the student is able to achieve mastery over a period of time. Much like a physician's survivor percentages, a mechanic's approval rating, or even a credit score. Yes, students should be given many chances to demonstrate mastery but we cannot lose the data reflecting the lack of mastery early on.

    I understand the article to say using a professional opinion of mastery which probably takes into account my next statement. If a student retakes a test and makes an "A" the second time is that really evidence of mastering the objective or simply mastering that test because opportunities have been given multiple times?

    I do not claim to have answers but I will always have questions. I am planning to incorporate some of this plan (the contract) in the future.

  6. I wholeheartedly agree with retakes. Like some of the other commenters, I too feel ostracized by fellow teachers sometimes for allowing them. However, my philosophy has really changed over the past few years. Why am I here? It really isn't to teach, but to help my students learn. I think whe teachers make that shift, things like retakes don't seem crazy at all.

    I too require extra work, or the "ticket to the show" as I call it. I also give students deadlines of when they must complete a retake.

    Thanks for the post. You are not alone!

    Heather Witten

  7. This is such a great idea, but I have had trouble finding the TIME to implement it in my classes. I always offer that students may retake tests or rewrite papers in my classes, but I find that the students who didn't have the drive to study for the test or take the time to write the paper in the first place don't have much drive to take a test a second time or rewrite the paper. The students who take advantage of it the most are the students who earn a B and aren't happy with that because they are "usually an A student".

    I love your contract, and will be thinking about using one like it for next year. I also find a lot of value in what the commenters are saying: extra work, deadlines, etc. I'm just afraid that these kinds of "hoops" are exactly what may scare the unmotivated student away, thereby perpetuating a cycle of failure for them.

    Like anything in education, this seems like a work in progress. I'm happy to be a part of a school system that takes the time to try new things and really evaluate how the implementation is working. One size certainly does not fit all in education, but I'm confident that we will find the right fit here!

  8. Re-evaluating your work is such a valuable skill ! I believe they need this skill in their post secondary life because in that environment they must be their own editor and if we haven't taught them the value of that then we have failed! I am so glad to read this post and hope others reflect on their grading practices!

  9. First off, I would like to thank you all for commenting on Jeff's post. I am so proud of him and the rest of my staff for re-evaluating their grading practices to focus on the most important aspect of education - student learning. As a school community we decided to tackle our grading philosophy last winter. We were guided by the work of Wormeli, Reeves, Gusskey, and O'Connor. An emphasis was placed on no zeros, multiple forms of assessment, establishment of a failure floor, 7 intervention steps to ensure student success, and retests/re-do's. I think my entire staff can attest that the process was initially difficult, but as you can see from Jeff's post and comments from his colleagues that positive change has resulted. This change is being embraced and it had been a total team effort. I could not be more proud of my staff.

  10. Thank you for the post, idea, and outline of how to implement a retake system. Is there a grade range you would and would not implement this strategy? For example, I am reading a lot of high school teachers using this technique. Would you recommend this strategy for middle/ el ed etc? Does this create limits? Thank you

  11. I would like to introduce myself. I'm Jeff Fiscina, the author of this post. I want to thank everyone for leaving comments to read. I also want to thank Eric, my principal, for posting this. First thing I would like everyone to know is that my re-take policy is a work in progress, just like everything I do in education. I always want to find ways to make things better in my classes. As for the classes I teach and apply this policy, they are Algebra 1 and Honors Geometry. Both are freshman level courses. As of now, I do not have any cutoffs as to what grade is able to have a re-take. I feel if the student is a perfectionist and strives to learn more, so be it.
    Students realize that if they choose to take a re-take, this requires more work from them. This gives students motivation to do well the first time around. Also, I remind them all the time that just because they are in the process of taking a re-take, class doesn't stop. They are still responsible for the work at hand. The contract is something I developed from what I called my "alpha stage". I gave the opportunities for a re-take 1 marking period and learned from it to come up with an official policy. I use it so that I can keep organized and track each individual student's status. Once students are prepared for a re-take, they need the contract with them so that I can see that I signed off on all aspects of my policy.
    So far, I haven't had a student who purposely "tanked" a test because they knew they had a second chance, to the best of my knowledge. I think the students recognize that there is more responsibility on them if they decide to re-take a test. They know that they need to put in an extra effort now and also keep up with the present material.
    If anyone has ideas on how to improve this system, please don't hesitate to let me know. I also write my own blog at and have a twitter (hyper-linked to my name at the beginning)
    Thank you all for commenting and helping me improve my strategies as an educator.

  12. I have adopted a similar policy in my class as well. However I really do like the idea of a contract so I think I will be borrowing it from you. :) Not all of the students who don't do as well as they would like take advantage of this offering - perhaps because they are unsure of what would be required of them- but I think that maybe if they see a contract it will help them visualize exactly what they need to do and encourage them to improve their mastery of the topics.

    For those who are concerned about the time it takes to create and grade re-takes, I don't consider a re-take as an entire other test necessarily. It can be a few questions from each part to show that the student has mastered the concept. Or sometimes, I individualize re-takes. If a student did well on one part but poorly on another, there is no need to re-do the part they already mastered. Just the concepts they still need work on.

  13. Jeff, great post. I am the principal at Bloomfield HS and we are in our second year of a program that allows all 9th grade students the opportunity to retake tests. Initially there was a lot of skepticism similar to many of the comments posted above, but when failure rates declined, most saw the impact of allowing second chances.
    To bolster the idea of retakes, all of our 9th grade teachers do not have a typical duty period. Rather, they have a period each day dedicated to our "Freshman Initiative". It is during this time they can call parents, speak with guidance and CST members, and write new assessments for students who will retake a test. Additionally, they meet one day a week in a 9th Grade PLC.
    This year we added a special activity period that takes place each Wednesday afternoon (we shorten each period by 8 minutes to allow time for this)that allows students to meet with teachers or participate in clubs and activities. It is during this activity period that 9th grade teachers provide remediation and give retake assessments.
    At the end of last year we had almost 50% less final failures in 9th grade as compared to the previous three years! Many upper level teachers have now adopted the retake philosophy and I am hoping we can go school wide next year.
    I recently discussed our 9th grade program at the NASSP convention in DC and I am so excited by the responses from so many other schools who are running similar programs. The power of social media allows us to connect as never before.
    Thanks to Eric for his blog and sharing your thoughts with all of us.

  14. Another alternative to retaking tests is completing a test analysis. Students rework the problems they missed and then decide if they missed the problem because they a) made a calculation error; b) misread or misunderstood the question; or c) didn't understand the concept.

    This way, students start to see a pattern: Are they working too quickly and make multiple errors? Are the reading through too quickly and misunderstanding the questions? or Are they not understanding the concepts (in which case seeking extra help, paying extra attention, remembering to study, etc... become more important to them).

    1. Jennifer- I really like your idea to use test analysis. Rather than going over the test and explaining all the correct answers (while the students who missed it are once again not paying attention) they will need to find or derive the correct answers themselves, and self-reflect on their own learning and test-taking experiences. After identifying the error pattern, they could also propose a solution to use in the future to avoid or reduce that those types of errors.