They All Failed The Test. What Do I Do?

Dear Young Teacher,

The other day you asked me an important question, and I gave you a bad half-answer (or no answer at all, really.) Please accept my apology, and allow me to fully answer your question.

You asked me, essentially: “More than half of my students failed my test, what should I do?” You also gave me some additional information. It seemed important in the moment, and it sounded persuasive, or perhaps it was meant to bias me in one direction. You said, “they had enough time to study, “and you added that “they did not complete their work,” etc. I think I knew what you wanted me to say. And I choked.

Perhaps you offered that additional information about their lack of preparation as prevention against the scariest possible answer, which meant undoing tomorrow’s lesson plan, and starting from scratch.

More likely, you were speaking as you have heard your own teachers speak in the past. You wanted to send the same message you received as a student: hard work is important; the grade you got is the grade you earned.

And maybe your question was, “Am I teaching poorly? Am I doing a bad job?”

There is a right answer, actually several, and I did not give it, or any of them.

First, an answer to this most important question. You are doing a fine job. This happens. It is part of teaching. It happens to veteran teachers too. There’s a bad day. A bad question. A bad test. A lack of preparation from students. Sometimes these things all line up.

So let’s do what teachers do. Let’s solve the problem.

First, we must address an important question, and one that teachers can easily overlook. Was your test valid? Did it measure what it was intended to measure, that is, did it really measure students’ progress on the specific skill you had been working on? I assume the answer to this is “yes”, or you believe it to be “yes.”

If you answered “I’m pretty sure,” then go back and check, please. Days of instruction hang in the balance here. If you answered “no,” then we need to have a different conversation.

If the test is valid, then we are on the same page, and your question is the one I intend to answer. Your test results revealed that a large portion of your students have not mastered the topic.

The next step seems obvious. And yet, you asked me. And – yet – I gave a bad answer. I said nothing, and seemed to mumble an agreement about their lack of preparation that might have even encouraged you to move on to your next lesson.

You have two pathways from here, but both lead in the same direction and accomplish this goal: for at least some of your students, you have got to stop, and re-teach.

“But there is a pacing guide,” you remind me. Maybe it is from the district, or the textbook company. It says you have to move forward. We already are behind the guide because of our field experiences. It seems like we lost so much time while we were out of the classroom. The pacing guide is a “guide”, not gospel. When the guide says “go” but the students say “slow,” we follow the student.

Easy path

Stop the whole train. Most subjects have a linear curriculum where mastering the next topic is somewhat dependent on mastering the current one. This is perhaps most demonstrably true in math, where skills build upon one another like homes on foundations. You simply can’t get the Pythagorean theorem if you cannot multiply and do not understand the concept of squaring and basic tenets of polynomials.

If more than half of your students did not understand the topic here, moving on sends fascinating messages. Which of these do you intend to send?

  • This test didn’t really matter.
  • These concepts don’t really matter.
  • The test is to evaluate you, not to look at whether we understand a concept.
  • Grades are a punishment for what you did not do in the past.
  • Your mistakes are a permanent part of your record.

Sounds pretty harsh, right? And maybe a student might not see it exactly that way. However, the cumulative effect of the traditional approach to teaching is to send ALL of these messages to kids. Over and over. [More on grading here.]

That’s not what we do here.

The message we want to send is:

  • Everything we do in class matters
  • This concept is important.
  • The test is to give us information about your progress so far.
  • A grade is an indicator of where you are right now.
  • Mistakes happen, but you will be judged by your mastery. You can master it.
  • We are going to get there together.

We want our students to learn persistence and grit. They are facing a hardship. This poor test score reflects poorly on them and their work. Let’s give them the tools to deal with it. Simply moving on, and letting this fade into the past, and remain there, irreconcilable, does not prepare them for real life. Moving on undermines our whole message that the time is important.

The reality is that students are watching us carefully for cues about how to conduct themselves. How we use our time teaches them about how to use their own time. “Let’s stop and get this right,” you can tell them. “Let’s look at what this information tells us, and figure out what we need to know.”

So, this generates another question. What about the students who mastered it, or those who at least passed the test. Why ignore their performance by asking them to revisit the material that they presumably have already mastered? No matter how well they did, they could also benefit from the practice, to gain more proficiency or even automaticity in their calculations.

Perhaps, however, there are some students who demonstrated mastery, and you have concerns about what to do next for them? Well, that brings up the harder option.

Harder path

Differentiate. Even if more than half of your students did not pass the test, many of them did. Presumably, on some level, moving forward is an act done to benefit them. They did the work, they mastered the content.

So what can you offer them?

Within each lesson, over time, you will be able to build and borrow ways to offer individual students support at their level. Some of these students need re-teaching. Some need enrichment. How can you use your own lesson planning, the textbook, or internet resources to provide students with deeper understanding? (Please, do not simply give them more work!)

As for those students who need the re-teaching, come back at it with another approach. Here are some ideas, from years of experience.

  • Break the work into parts.
  • Look for place where students made the same mistake and target it.
  • Provide a targeted study guide.
  • Give a different version of the test.
  • Hold a study session for this skill and then re-give the test.
  • Have them study by correcting their mistakes on their test.
  • Have them explain and correct their mistakes on the test.

This is important too: make sure that their hard work has a positive outcome. Give students partial or full credit for making these improvements. They are correcting mistakes and developing grit. This is hard and important work. We were willing to withhold points for not doing work just a few paragraphs ago. Let’s be willing to provide them with additional points for their hard work. Or, better yet, let’s give them credit for where they end up, rather than where they started.

Certainly we need to look at the additional evidence you provided in asking the question. The students perhaps had ample time to study and they did so ineffectively. So what do we learn from this? Are teenagers lazy? Not more so than people in other age groups, as far as I can tell. Do they need more prompting and reinforcement of how to best spend their time? Yes, most definitely. And how will we teach them that?

Students are compelled to come to school. We are required to teach them. Krista points out, accurately, that school is the one place where people are required to do what they don’t want to do, and they have no choice other than do it, or fail. This puts teachers in a difficult position, especially in the teaching of a concept or subject where students and even parents and other adults profess a lack of ability, normalizing failure in the subject. We must help students feel comfortable taking chances, working hard, and responding to failure.

Maybe the issue really is that the students lack the necessary study skills. It is true that they had ample time to prepare, but they did not use it wisely. Then you know what you need to teach. What does good time management look like? Show them.

  • Run a sample home study session
  • Help individual students build their own study schedule
  • Show students how to goal set and purposefully use their study time

Will a bad grade teach them better study habits? I don’t think so. There are myriad reasons why students do not study, or that they might study ineffectively. Every Friday night I have a related conversation with one or more students in Friday Night School (who are required to spend their time on academic work rather than merely sitting and waiting for time to expire). These students are genuine in asking what they should do if they are done with their work. Many students have been taught that their assignments are the totality of the work of education. Completing an assignment is, in this view, the end of education. Let’s help students see that an assignment is a form of practice, and that there are many ways to practice.

Will a bad grade teach a student the skill they lack? Certainly not.

Will a bad grade motivate them? I doubt it. If bad grades were effective motivators, there would be no students retained from one grade to the next. We know that in fact, giving an A can be highly motivating. We know that relationships and relevance are the primary motivational tools in a teacher’s tool kit. Have the students seen how this math is used outside the classroom? Do they understand the connection between learning the discipline of math and how they can solve other real-world problems?

You are working hard to provide meaningful and rigorous instruction. On this test, you got results that were worse than you expected. Even as you improve in your craft, this will happen again. How you respond to the data will help set the direction for you and your students for the rest of the year. Take the steps you can this time.

Just like your students, you have been given important data. You now have a chance to take a step that will help them develop as students, by developing yourself as a teacher. Welcome to the practice!

2 thoughts on “They All Failed The Test. What Do I Do?

    • Thank you. It is important that teachers understand they have leeway to go back and revisit something – we are not slaves to the calendar!

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