February 09, 2011
February 09, 2011
“Sensei, I know I missed one third of all your classes, slept in most of the others, never completed a single homework assignment, mostly ignored other students in pair work or teamwork and scored 40% on the role-play test and 20% on the final paper exam. But I get to do a re-test! Is it OK if I write a one-page English report on my summer holiday experience in order to pass?”
“Why of course! Even though you have done virtually nothing in the class, have not improved your English at all, and have in no way indicated that you will be ready for the course at the next level, I will happily give you full credit if you throw together a one-page English report on any topic of your choosing the day before final grades are due. That should be more than enough to get full course credit.”
This scenario would be a wet dream for some students. Ah, re-tests! The academic repository of cheap redemption for conveniently “remorseful” miscreants. Tertiary education’s equivalency to deathbed conversions by Mafia dons. Obviously the re-test system can be abused and render the notion of having gone through a learning process, having completed the intellectual requirements of passing through a course, redundant. But I’m actually in favor of the whole notion of re-testing. With certain caveats, that is.
At my own university (and I believe that our system is quite standardized) 60% constitutes a passing grade. When classes actually finish and grades calculated (which is very soon if you are using some type of ongoing assessment) grades can be submitted. Those students who have over 60% will receive a circle (they'll see their actual score later), indicating no re-test is necessary. Under 30 means an automatic fail, an X, with no possibility of redress. A score of 30-60 produces a triangle, which means that the student must officially be re-tested (content and subsequent grading of course being entirely up to the individual teacher). More than three unexcused absences over the semester also constitutes an automatic fail.
Actually, these numbers in and of themselves mean very little. The notion that a student ‘got a 65’ doesn’t really refer to anything objective or concrete- unless that is your course evaluation consists entirely of discrete point factoids which cumulatively represent the entire level of attainment expected from the course. And, frankly speaking, if you are evaluating your English classes like that you are probably not tuned in enough to be reading the ELTNews website in the first place.
The problem is that there are certain students who do very little all year but suddenly become contrite when they realize they are in deep doo-doo. You want to fail them- not so much out of a sense of revenge or a raw desire to punish but because you have a sense of justice. Passing them despite having achieved so little cheapens the work of students who actually have made an effort. And word will soon get around that you are ‘easy’. A pushover pedagogue. More students in the future will try to get away with doing the bare minimum once a precedent is set.
But in order to have them bypass the re-test requirement and fail outright I have to score these students at under 30. And in ongoing assessment, with role-plays and team projects included in the scoring, it is hard to give anyone a 20 or 25. You could of course jigger the scores. There’s nothing nefarious in doing so. After all, one assignment may be very easy and everyone scores over 80 but that's only because you have made that assignment simple. It's relative to the task. It’s not an indicator of some sacrosanct holy writ from God above that the student is in some empirically verifiable sense an ‘A’ student. You can decide outright if the student hasn't met the requirements and duly give him or her a 29. No one (at least not at my university) will doubt you on this matter although you might well expect a visit from a teary-eyed student demanding to know why he got a 29% final grade when in fact you gave his classroom team presentation a whole 50%!
Teachers have varying feelings about re-tests. Some feel that if you didn’t make the grade the first time round, that’s it. How many chances do you expect? If you don’t make the grade first time around you repeat it next year. Simple as that. Standardized tests don’t give you a re-test if you fail until the next year/season that they are administered. Why should I?
And it's true that re-tests are meaningless when the re-test task is just a piece of busy work- the old 'Ok- write me a report' fob-off. In that case, the re-test serves only as a type of punishment and has no pedagogical value. A meaningful re-test has to connect to actual course content- to somehow fulfill the stated course goals. The popular notion that a student can or should pass by filing some last-minute report is the equivalent of the military, ‘Drop and give me twenty!”.
Actually, there are very good reasons why you should have several students do re-tests. The first is that if you think the student doesn’t know enough yet or hasn’t displayed the expected level of skill having a re-test motivates them to do better. Re-tests have diagnostic value too. If students know in what areas they performed poorly, where their weak points are, they can make amends and fix those leaks. And isn’t this what education is about- getting students up to the expected or required level? Being aware of, working and improving on their deficiencies?
Or perhaps the student simply bungled a major assignment. Maybe they approached it the wrong way, or they had some formal difficulties understanding what was required or expected, they didn’t quite get the gravity of the assignment. Such students deserve a chance to redeem themselves- and these students, unlike the few who are just lazy and think simply be being physically in the classroom that they should get an automatic pass, are truly grateful for the opportunity. They invariably learn something in the process.
And what happens to the true laggards? Well, they get their re-test and almost invariably they make a complete hash of that too. What did you expect? You haven’t paid attention to anything all year. So see you in the next one.
What policies or thoughts do readers have regarding re-tests?