Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Should Teachers Return Graded Tests?
by Dr. Denise Pope, Challenge Success Co-Founder

Jay Mathews, education writer for The Washington Post, wrote a recent column about teachers who refused to give students back their graded tests. Some of these tests were the standardized tests that the states or districts re-use each year, and the teachers were worried about kids cheating -- sharing questions and answers with next year’s students. But some of the tests that remained under lock and key were end-of-unit tests and midterms. Jay reported that many parents and educators thought this policy was unfair. Most of the learning that takes place after a student takes a test happens precisely when that student has a chance to see what she got wrong and learn from her mistakes. This doesn't necessarily happen in the 45 minutes during class time when the tests are passed back briefly and then recollected. Sometimes a student needs to grapple with the problem, go home and think about it, and use the test to help study for future exams and assessments.

I understand how difficult it is to make a great test. It can take hours and hours of a teacher's time. But if the end goal is for all students to learn, then we must find a way to allow kids to see their mistakes and correct them. At Challenge Success we help teachers learn to use multiple forms of assessment. Sometimes we suggest that students play a role in constructing their own test questions or essay topics. Often we urge educators to consider project-based assessments which are much harder to cheat on and can be "re-used" with each new group of students. We also urge educators to allow ways for students to revise their work and to redeem themselves. We have found that when teachers allow students to take home graded tests and then turn in test corrections, the students can learn from their mistakes and eventually understand the material in depth.

We know that cheating is a problem -- especially in high school, and we sympathize with the time it takes to design effective assessments. Ultimately, however, our students will work in the "real world" where rarely (if ever?) will they be judged on the quality of their work on a timed paper and pencil exam, based on questions they don't know ahead of time, and without the ability to use any of the resources (people, internet, work notes, etc.) on which they are used to relying when doing daily tasks. If the exam is easy to copy and far removed from the kind of work folks do outside of school, then perhaps we need to design a more cheat-proof assessment that will challenge students before, during AND after they receive feedback.

Denise Pope, Ph.D., is a Senior Lecturer at the Stanford University School of Education. For the past thirteen years, she has specialized in student engagement, curriculum studies, qualitative research methods, and service learning. Dr. Pope lectures nationally on parenting techniques and pedagogical strategies to increase student health, engagement with learning, and integrity. Her book, "Doing School": How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed Out, Materialistic, and Miseducated Students (Yale University Press, 2001) was awarded Notable Book in Education by the American School Board Journal, 2001. Dr. Pope is a 3 time recipient of the Stanford University School of Education Outstanding Teacher and Mentor Award.


  1. The question is: why are students cheating to begin with? In the end, they know that the test is artificial task that often measures knowledge of a very limited scope and very little utility. Copying the questions and distributing them in a black market of false knowledge then seems like a pretty adaptive solution to the problem of being judged based on such a meaningless task. Cheating will stop when we create work for students that has inherent meaning.

    Bill Wilmot
    Head of School
    Tremont School

  2. No offense, but you really sound like an academic , living in an ivory tower. Yes, tests are not perfect, but they do allow a teacher to get an idea of what their students understand. Students that do study, tend to do very well on tests. And cheating often happens when a student doesn't put the time in to prepare for the test.

    It really scares me that after all the learning you did while studying for exams, etc. that you now sit on your high horse as Head of School spouting such things.

    Like I said, tests aren't perfect, but do you really think a kid will stop cheating when Bill Wilmot creates tests with "inherent meaning?"