It’s nice to see such a vigorous discussion here. I’ve very rarely allowed students to retake tests, and when I have I’ve usually given a grade averaged from the two attempts, but Brian’s argument is highly persuasive. It’s given me a lot to chew on.
I strongly agree that tests and grades measure learning, period. (Or that’s how it should be, anyway.) Ability and effort are relevant only to the extent that they have resulted in learning.
But it sticks in my craw a bit to think of disrupting the system by allowing routine test redos. There’s something to be said for requiring students to demonstrate their learning within the system’s constraints. If the learning/grades are insufficient, the system has a remedy: retaking the course.
This is important because resources are limited, and in my experience most students will generally receive the greatest benefit by maximizing current performance rather than trying to fix the deficiencies of the past. I had one student who was talented, hardworking, and motivated to get the best possible grades. Like many students he did well in some subjects and struggled in others. He wanted his C’s to be A’s or at least B’s, and his A’s to be A-plusses, and he was always asking if there was any way he could improve his grade on this or that test or if there was anything he could do for extra credit. If I had let him he would have spiralled endlessly in pursuit of marginal improvements to last month’s work, to the detriment of today’s work (not to mention his overall well-being). This was an extreme example, but it illustrates the point.
But deep down I suspect that my devotion to the system is really a fear that change would be inconvenient for me. There’s something almost Orewellian about the very notion of “demonstrat[ing] their learning within the system’s constraints,” as if people should also demonstrate wisdom, faithfulness, or love within the system’s constraints. (That must be a pretty outstanding system.) Surely we can develop some flexibility here.