The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Blew the big exam? Forget about taking it home to figure out why.

In our standardized era, convenience for the test maker can outweigh student progress.


Amid all the irritating school policies that parents have encountered during the pandemic, let’s look at one that has been around long before that: Why don’t schools let students see certain important exams that have been graded so they can understand their mistakes?

I get complaints about this frequently. In 2013, a parent in Montgomery County, Md., said when he asked that his son and his son’s math tutor be allowed to look at the student’s wrong answers on a countywide exam, the math coordinator gave the standard answer: We don’t do that because we don’t want to have to write new questions for next year’s test.

The coordinator seemed sympathetic. He cloaked his rejection in the jargon administrators hope will calm parents down: “We do understand your frustration with secure assessments and continue to seek options for balancing assessment consistency, supporting student growth, and the capacity to develop new, high quality materials,” he said in an email. “That is why we have non-secure formative assessments to provide information to students and parents about progress during unit instruction.”

The problem is worst with math tests, where students must often show their work and where the precise answer to a question has more importance than in other subjects. An exasperated parent in the Seattle area, Erica Anderson, recently offered me proof of continued resistance to helping children by letting them see where they went wrong.

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She said her son is “a star in the classroom, does his homework mostly on time and mostly correctly, but when it comes time for the test he bombs.” Like many parents in that situation, she and her husband hired a tutor. The tutor told them it would help to see exactly how their son incorrectly answered questions on his exams.

The student is a 12th-grader. “I have been asking to see my kid’s math tests since the sixth grade,” Anderson said. “The answer is always no, and the logic is always related to cheating. What they will allow is for kids to set up time with their teachers to review their tests in person, but they cannot take the test home because — this is the part that kills me — the teacher would have to create a new test next year.”

Wouldn’t meeting with the student also take some time? Wouldn’t it be less of a drain on a teacher’s busy day to photocopy the kid’s answers to whatever questions he got wrong and let him examine them along with his parents or tutor?

“As a process person, this offends me to the nth degree,” Anderson said. Her son’s tutor, who is also a teacher, “told me not only does she think it is a travesty but that most teachers hate this rule.”

Trena Wilkerson, president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, told me parents are right to raise this question with teachers.

“Education is about doing all we can to support students’ understanding and sense-making of mathematics,” she said. “I suspect this practice is more common for districtwide assessments as opposed to an individual unit test. We should look at practices that assist and support students in all aspects of their learning, including assessments. Collaborative communication among students, teachers, parents and families, and school leaders supports students in their learning of mathematics.”

Oliver Lee, founder of Principia Tutors and Consultants in the Washington, D.C., area, said “we often have to rely on a student’s memory to review missed questions, which can be problematic if the student isn’t able to recall every detail of the question.” One of his math directors said the process was akin to a “police sketch artist trying to cobble together a detailed portrait from a stressed-out victim.”

Many educators and parents believe this was aggravated by the expansion of standardized testing under President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act. Beginning in 2002, all states had to come up with exams to determine how much children had learned. The bipartisan support was breathtaking, compared with what happens these days. The bill passed the House of Representatives 381-41 and the Senate 87-10.

By 2015, the public had become disillusioned with No Child Left Behind. Congress removed the requirement that all states do it. But many states and localities kept such exams. Teachers at a school who handled required courses such as ninth-grade algebra or 10th-grade English would sometimes get together and make their own standardized tests. Having worked hard writing those questions, they didn’t want to be forced to change them because a student’s parents and tutor wanted to diagnose what went wrong on questions 5, 8, 13, 17 and 20.

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I once found a principal in Fairfax County, Va., who overrode teacher objections and sent completed exams home. But she was rare. In some states principals don’t have the power to do that. Counties can easily ignore complaints from a few parents and tutors.

One testing expert said I am forgetting that common exams are needed to “assist leadership in better understanding strengths, opportunities and challenges within their structures. New tests each year on a districtwide assessment make it difficult to compare year to year.”

Wilkerson, at the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, doesn’t have data on the extent of the problem. “I don’t think this practice is uniform or pervasive in general assessments,” she said. “That doesn’t make it any less frustrating to students, parents, and others supporting a student’s learning.”

We seem to be entering an era in which we give more attention to parent complaints about how their children are taught. This might be one instance where we can agree to loosen old rules. Wilkerson could use her organization’s influence to make changes. What is more important: making sure teachers don’t have to rewrite questions or ensuring each child fully understands the lesson?