In Peter Jackson’s 2001 film adaption of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, the Council of Elrond declares that an evil ring can only be destroyed by throwing it into the fires of Mount Doom, a volcano deep within the land of Mordor. Boromir, a Steward of Gondor, retorts, “One does not simply walk into Mordor.”
Similarly, one does not approach a summative assessment without ongoing deliberate practice and preparation. Back in 2009, I realized that many of my Geometry and Algebra II students were arriving at the foot of our final exam — a mathematical Mount Doom so to speak — woefully unprepared.
Part of this was due to the fact that they had struggled in earlier chapters and had given up hope. In fact, many of them had arrived in my class having largely despaired of success in math classes altogether. At the time, our department had a no-retakes policy, so a student who did badly on an assessment couldn’t do anything about it except come in before or after school in the hopes those skills could be shored up by the end of the semester. But the prospect of having to relearn the material without any commensurate improvement to their grade provided little motivation.
As a way of addressing this sense of apathy and hopelessness, I gained administrative approval to implement an after-school “skill recovery” program whereby students could reassess individual skills and concepts they had failed to master on the test. These short assessments each included 5–7 questions and required a 75–80% threshold to demonstrate mastery. Once students reached that threshold, all the points associated with that skill were added back to the test. Any prior assessments were always “No counted” or raised to the level of the most recent percentage to better reflect current mastery. Even with just a 75–80% threshold, I felt justified in giving back all the missed points because the questions on the assessments were often more far-ranging and diverse than the ones featured on the test, where perhaps only 1–3 questions were possible. Nearly all students and parents expressed praise for the program, with many communicating a wish that it be extended to other courses and subjects.
However, problems arose when certain kids began making my class a last priority due to this after-school option. If they didn’t study and bombed the exam, they knew they could use my skill recovery program to recover whatever points they’d lost. No one wants to continuously fail, but when staring down the barrel of multiple high-stakes, one-shot assessments in other classes, my class was getting short shrift.