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Posted at 9:00 PM ET, 11/17/2010

Hiding exams from students

By Jay Mathews

The parent at McLean High School was frustrated. Two years ago he had to go to the principal to force a teacher to let his daughter keep a copy of a graded test so she could get a better sense of her errors. Last month, it happened again with his son.

“My son no longer gets any exams returned, and in some cases, classes aren’t allowed to even view their exams,” he said in an Oct. 8 e-mail to the same principal, Deborah Jackson. “Using exams to learn where you erred and to prepare for future exams is a time-honored part of the learning process. My son’s math tutor (a teacher in another school) asked for a copy of a recent exam he had taken and when told that exams were no longer being returned, said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding. How do they defend doing that?’ ”

As Jackson said in an interview, rules don’t require that exams go home, but that is her policy and she is enforcing it. She has gone to each teacher involved in the complaint (most of whom said they did not withhold any tests) and has notified the entire faculty.

Yet, that is not the end of it. Jackson said she doesn’t have final say on the handling of all exams. There are signs that keeping exams from students might become more prevalent, not less, in Fairfax County and other districts.

One of the unexamined consequences of the new emphasis on test scores to measure student progress and educator effectiveness is that teachers are beginning to standardize their own tests. Virginia, Maryland and the District have standardized state-level tests. But classroom teachers and district instructional specialists are introducing homegrown standardized unit and semester exams.

Jackson calls the new standardized tests “common assessments.” All the 10th-grade English teachers, for instance, might get together and prepare the same test on Shakespeare to give to all their students. Frances Ivey, Fairfax County curriculum and instruction director, said that teachers work hard on those questions and that some want to keep them so they can use them again to help more students find their weak spots. Common assessments also help identify teachers having trouble communicating the lesson.

Students are given the graded exams in class. They can ask their teachers questions about why some answers wrong. But some teachers say they can’t take the tests home. The district also has a rule allowing principals or teachers they designate to keep the final exam for one year after a course is over.

Parents, and some students, remember studying their previous mistakes and reviewing old exams before taking a new one. Some parents think they are being deprived of a chance to help their children. Holding back old tests handicaps expensive tutors who would like to see all previous work.

Slowly, unconsciously, testing can encroach on learning. Reviewing returned tests only in class limits the time students have to reflect on their mistakes. It cuts parents out of the process.

“It now appears to parents that teachers’ convenience is more important than the kids actually learning the material,” the complaining parent said in an e-mail to Jackson, whose efforts on his behalf he said he appreciates.

He asked me not to use his name. He said he didn’t want to embarrass his son. Although he didn’t think there would be any teacher recriminations, he said he didn’t want to take any chances.

Some teachers might find that insulting. But if they don’t keep their lines of communication wide open, including sending exams home, they are likely to find more parents feeling the same way.

Read Jay's blog every day, and follow all of The Post's Education coverage on Twitter, Facebook and our Education Web page.

By Jay Mathews  | November 17, 2010; 9:00 PM ET
Categories:  Local Living  | Tags:  McLean High School, parents complain students don't have enough time to analyze mistakes, practice growing in Fairfax and other districts, some teachers don't let students take some exams home, teachers creating homegrown standardized tests and want to use them more than once, tutors handicapped  
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Slowly, unconsciously, testing can encroach on learning.

A logical consequence of the push for massive standardized testing.

Prince George's County Public Schools gives Formative Assessments 3 times a year (1st , 2nd and 4th quarters- 3rd quarter is MD's NCLB test- the MSA).
These get reviewed in class and don't go home.

Posted by: edlharris | November 17, 2010 10:39 PM | Report abuse

I hate to say this, but this sort of thing is even occurring at the elementary level. Teachers are so worried about students from previous years passing on tests to younger brothers or sisters, that they keep all tests and only divulge grades. I teach elementary school and I think this logic is ridiculous. Be creative, create a different assessment from one year to the next and don't worry. After all, it is only elementary.

Posted by: holland21 | November 17, 2010 11:44 PM | Report abuse

I agree with every word of this article--but then, I was and am one of those tutors. It's not only absurd, but unethical, for a teacher to withhold the results of tests when they are a major component of the grade.

"“It now appears to parents that teachers’ convenience is more important than the kids actually learning the material,” the complaining parent said in an e-mail to Jackson, whose efforts on his behalf he said he appreciates. "

That's my take, too. However, I can create a test very easily, and lots of teachers see it as a huge amount of effort.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | November 18, 2010 12:10 AM | Report abuse

Here is the real issue: students cheat. A lot. And if you (as an over-worked, underpaid) teacher have to reuse many of your test questions & students can take the tests home, post the answers on twitter, FB, etc, or just share the information between friends & siblings, then the test becomes meaningless.

In some schools the departments supply the tests so the teachers have no/little say in how they test.

Should teachers go over the answers in class (maybe 1 or 2 days later)? Yes. And explain what was wrong and why.

But I also know that as you go over the answers, students will moan and complain and not understand why they don't automatically get an A for being themselves.

Honestly I am so frustrated by (the very few) cheating & plagiarizing students who feel entitled to get As.

Sadly it only takes one bad student a year to make a teacher feel very frustrated.

Posted by: archaeology1 | November 18, 2010 2:16 AM | Report abuse

It's obvious why teachers hold back exams and only give grades: kids cheat. Teachers have standardized their lesson plans so much that they don't change from year to year and thus their exams don't need to change. This makes it easy for kids to pass on exams as a way of "beating the system." However, it is frustrating as a student not to be able to learn from your mistakes. The answer: teachers just make a new exam each year. Or, better yet, just make new in-class essay questions each year. I hate to say it, but when I was in high school some of my teachers were just too lazy to change exams from year to year. The hardest exams for me in high school were the ones that required me to think, evaluate and write critical responses. Fill in the blanks and multiple choice are no way to assess learning. But hell, they are easy to grade.

Posted by: terriertigger | November 18, 2010 2:17 AM | Report abuse

Seem to be lots of issues here...standardized testing where there is no requirement for it...fear of cheating because tests don't change from year to year ... student's lack of access to completed tests...

I admit being my view point on this is rather draconian. I went to six different elementary schools and four different high schools due to my father's travel. I saw a lot. I graduated 10th in a class of 600 and went on to complete college on a four year scholarship and get a Masters degree. Here's my take:

Every test administered needs to be reviewed with students. The correct answers AND methods (as in math, physics, etc.) need to be provided; in tests with subjective content, the teacher needs to provide the main points he or she was looking for to justify an A or B, etc. Yes, it takes up classroom time, but it is an essential part of learning. The kids need to have their exam in front of them at the time. Later, if need be, they can be collected.

With regard to disruptive students who want to make a case for a changed grade during this review, you need to establish rules and discipline that provides a time and place for that activity, be it after school, on a weekend, via email, whatever. Then, during this session, you cannot waiver from the guidelines you laid down in class. Period.

I have the greatest respect for teachers, but I'm not sure they have been their own best friends over the years. While the unions have secured better pay and working conditions, the environment in most class rooms has deteriorated signficantly. "Moaning" and "complaining" students? In my world they get a warning or two against outbursts, and then a trip to the principal's office.

I do understand that were that to happen, teachers in some of our schools around here might fear being shot on the way home.

Posted by: Curmudgeon10 | November 18, 2010 3:54 AM | Report abuse

Perhaps we should also require the testing institutions to return their exams to the students.

Why not?

Don't we want students to learn from their mistakes on the ACT, SAT, or the AP exams?

Posted by: MisterRog | November 18, 2010 4:32 AM | Report abuse

"Holding back old tests handicaps expensive tutors who would like to see all previous work."

REALLY? If you are hiring a tutor who can't teach your student based on all the graded homework, classwork, and quizzes (which kids get back), you need to hire a better tutor.

Of course this would be an issue in McLean and not in less affluent areas, where "expensive tutors" are often what causes average kids to have above-average grades. I'd bet the kid in this article sees his tutor *multiple* times a week.

Posted by: mikecapitolhill | November 18, 2010 5:22 AM | Report abuse

Here he goes again. Why does Mr. Mathews fail to do his due diligence to get all sides of a story before going to print? Just like in "Curiosity Discouraged in Competitive High School," Mr. Mathews fails to incorporate all points of views and is seemingly ok with besmirching teachers. There was not one quote from a teacher at McLean in this article. I also find it interesting that both articles were inspired by a disgruntled parent. Did he bother to interview parents of other students at McLean (or Westfield) to get their viewpoint? What about students' point of view?

Should teachers go over their tests with their students in class? Absolutely. Should teachers allow students or parents to come in after school and allow them to pour over their graded tests? Yes. However, Mr. Mathews fails to paint a clear picture of what a teacher goes through to make a thorough assessment. It takes hours to so. In addition, in many disciplines, there is not a dearth of available questions. Once a test leaves the classroom, it is unusable. There is no questions that students share notes, quiz questions, and tests with their younger siblings and friends. Why should a teacher have to duplicate his/her hard work?

The College Board, the administrator of AP tests, does not release its exams until years later and only once a suitable replacement has been made. Why is it not OK for teachers to do the same?

Having the platform that he does, Mr. Mathews has a great deal of power. He can use that platform to paint teachers and schools as unreasonable (by not getting all sides of a story), or he can be a true journalist and get to the truth of a matter. If he cannot do the latter, he has no business writing for the Post.

Posted by: bendergary | November 18, 2010 5:46 AM | Report abuse

Lets first clarify some terms; teachers are NOT creating their own standardized tests. Standardized tests are tests with norms, bell curves and a great deal of work behind them. Teachers are creating either common assessments between a department or grade level (i.e. all within that group are using the same assessment) or teachers are creating one assessment to be used by all of their students.

I am not sure how the overall implication is any different than in years past. If a teacher had students who needed to do re-takes, or who hadn't taken a test, they usually had a different version of the test to give to those students...and that is the real question here, why aren't they doing that now?

Why, when they are more than likely forced to differentiate their lessons to "meet individual student needs" aren't they coming up with at least 2 version of their assessments? (i.e. if multiple choice questions in different order) Or 2 entirely different assessments testing the same thing (multiple choice versus essay or short answer).

Posted by: researcher2 | November 18, 2010 6:07 AM | Report abuse

MisterRog and BenderGary:

Teachers can get AP exam essays back from ETS. However, there are two pedagogical problems. This takes a few months to happen and student have likely moved on to new courses or college by the time the tests are returned. Also, the essays themselves have no grades or marks on them. There's no way to tell what text scored points on the essays, other than the published rubric. The 1-5 score for the exam is a statistical function. The main point of making the AP essays available to teachers is so that they can review teaching impacts on certain exam content.

Overall, I agree with most of the comments here. Students should be able to keep, study and review the regular school tests. There may be sometimes when its good for teachers to keep exams and see how well they are getting through to the students.

Posted by: professor70 | November 18, 2010 7:16 AM | Report abuse

I think its fantasic that school districts are moving toward common assessments for unit and semester exams. An "A" should reflect the same degree of mastery of material, whether the child is in Mr. Smith's class or Mrs. Doe's class. When I was in high school, there were "easy graders" and "tough" ones and that wasn't fair. Some teachers didn't even cover all the material before the end of the year, and common assessments would force them to readjust their pacing.

Common assesments should even be instituted between and among the different schools. Students in High School A shoudl all take the same unit tests as students in high school B if they are taking the same class.

So common assessments are great. With so many teachers using the same tests, it would make sense to have a few teachers work (for pay) on building up a large data bank for each unit test. Simple software exists for such test generators for example:{GoogleSearchSchoolhouseTest}&gclid=CPWghfuyqqUCFY5N5QodDHtpYA

School districts should purchase this software and allow teachers to issue tests with questinos generated randomly from the databank.

If the databank of questions is large enough, teachers can actually issue the entire databank ahead of time as a study guide! It sounds crazy, but since a students can't actually memorize all those questions, they will be forced to actually -- gasp -- learn the material! (When I was growing up, this was called studying, and teachers encouraged the practice.)

Since the test items will be randomly selected from a LARGE databank, each time they are administered, tuturs can also have access to ALL the questions in the databank, and can see the tests after the fact to help the students review what they missed in time for the final exam.

If so many teachers are using a common assessment, there's no reason they can't have a large database of questions. That would eliminate the problem of reusing exams.

Posted by: CallieB | November 18, 2010 7:59 AM | Report abuse

Most universities give test scores, they do not return the exams to students. Of course some do, but this practice has been in use at the university level for decades.

Posted by: 12345leavemealone | November 18, 2010 8:00 AM | Report abuse

Let me see: I take hours to make a test which is fair and challenging, go over each question in class when the test is returned, offer to meet with any student who has more questions about the test or his/her own answers, and then I should make a new test each time?? Get real! Students and parents have the right to be educated, which would include the process above. They do not have the right to endless questioning of evaluations, to 'grade-grubbing' for one more point, to an A!
The hypocrisy just drips from many student's, and more often, parent's lips as they want to know what they can do to get a better grade - not learn more or more deeply, mind you, but get a better grade! This was a minor aggravation in my teaching days [retired in 2007] but it is apparently becoming rampant as the full weight of the testing culture hits. I was a damn good teacher and loved my work but I'm not sure I can in good conscience urge young folks to become teachers - what a shame for the nation!

Posted by: aspnh | November 18, 2010 8:14 AM | Report abuse

Here's the cheating scenario people are missing. Forget about younger students/siblings, this is the reason I had to stop handing back tests.

If I go over the answers to the test after they are graded, then all a student has to do is skip class a couple of times, and one of his/her classmates will give them ALL THE ANSWERS. This cheating is especially hard to catch when you are required to use county-mandated multiple choice (sorry, "selected response") tests.

Posted by: someguy100 | November 18, 2010 8:23 AM | Report abuse

An interesting article from the journal, Memory and Cognition:

"Feedback enhances the positive effects and reduces the negative effects of multiple-choice testing"

Another interesting article - this one from Psychonomic Bulletin & Review:

"The memorial consequences of multiple-choice testing"

Posted by: shadwell1 | November 18, 2010 8:24 AM | Report abuse

Oh, and lets combine that idea with the post from earlier this week, where all you need to do to get a D in a class is get a couple of Cs, and now that cheating student doesn't even need to do any work for the rest of the quarter!

Posted by: someguy100 | November 18, 2010 8:33 AM | Report abuse

RE: "However, I can create a test very easily, and lots of teachers see it as a huge amount of effort."

Sure, a test can be created with relatively little effort. However, it takes a lot of time and effort (outside of the school day) to create a standards-based, common assessment that tests standards and not content. The content presented in the tests are supposed to be "neutral," meaning the students haven't been exposed to the exact passages, questions, and distractors. For these kinds of tests, you can't just slap together the content you've been using in the classroom for instruction. It's truly unrealistic for teachers to recreate these tests every year. They are not given the time during their working hours to do so. And they're already using many hours outside of class to plan, grade, make parent calls, do administrivia, et.

In regard to district created tests. It's often the case that teachers are only provided with a classroom set of test copies for all of their sections. Some protocols call for teachers to return even the one classroom set to the administration after testing is complete and the test has been debriefed.

This is a logical result of the educational policies of the last ten years. It hasn't always been this way.

Don't blame the teachers.

Posted by: stevendphoto | November 18, 2010 8:46 AM | Report abuse

RE: "Fill in the blanks and multiple choice are no way to assess learning. But hell, they are easy to grade."

I would rather give essay assessments and I often do for final exams. However, you miss the point that teachers are required to administer multiple choice tests to gather data in preparation for high-stakes state testing that often determines the fate of struggling schools.

It has became all about data. Oh yeah, don't tell anyone, but all the data that's being collected is also invalid and therefore useless.

Check out this video of student voices posted on GF Brandenburg's blog.

Posted by: stevendphoto | November 18, 2010 8:51 AM | Report abuse

"Perhaps we should also require the testing institutions to return their exams to the students."

They charge a nominal fee, but in the case of the SAT and ACT, this happens. I agree that the CB should be required to do the same with AP and Subject tests.

I didn't even bother mention the cheating aspect--I mean, duh. The issue is whether or not it's a hassle for teachers to create a new test.

Aspnh is giving the response of the teachers I was talking about--that is, it's a lot of work and he/she doesn't want to do it. I'm not unsympathetic to that response.

Steve argues that there's something special about the tests--standards, not content, blah blah blah. But I don't see why it's all that much time. My tests are designed to test the standards--in fact, my content addresses the standards. Not sure what he sees as this huge difference.

If a district requires that all classes use exactly the same test, then that could be a hassle. But they should build in the time to do it every year, or use those tests only for benchmarking, and not for the grade.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | November 18, 2010 9:29 AM | Report abuse


I was speaking of the multiple choice part of the exam. The CB does not release those questions to teachers or anyone else.

Depending on the discipline, the CB releases the entire test including multiple choice, no earier than 3 years after it is administered. Those would be perfect for teachers to use as final exams for future classes, but the CB makes them available to anyone who wants to buy them.

It makes perfect sense that the CB releases the essays. Once the kids finish the test, the full text of the questions ends up on Facebook within minutes anyway! At my old school in Fairfax County, we received the exam booklets with the questions 24 hours after the exam. I could then go over the questions and answers with my students.

Posted by: bendergary | November 18, 2010 9:34 AM | Report abuse

In NYS we have end of the year subject Regents exams in HS. I believe these are very similar in design to VA'a SOLs. They are kept in a sealed vault and only distributed at the designated examination day and time. Now as I recall, I had wanted to see my son's answers on a Math Regents exam he failed. I had to be escorted to the room in which the scored exams were kept and look at the results on the premises, even though the exams were changed every year. In our school, the Regents exam counts for 20% of the student's grade for the year. With the exception of English, the bulk of the exams are administered in June and there is no classroom time left to go over the results. I can somewhat understand the "controls" placed on a state-wide, standardized test, but really, if the tests are different every time, what's the harm in handing them back to the students?

On the other hand, this talk of "common assessments", formerly known as Chapter tests and quizzes, not being returned to students is inexcusable. You mean to tell me these "professionals" are incapable of re-wording their individual exams from year to year to avoid this "cheating" excuse? That's just plain laziness.

Posted by: lisamc31 | November 18, 2010 10:24 AM | Report abuse

I tutored an AP student a number of years ago and the teacher refused to allow the students to keep their exams. The teacher indicated that the test was re-used and she didn't want it sent out again. I told her that the answers were the students' work product and they didn't belong to her. I also pointed out that she wasn't a very good teacher if she didn't want to re-write her tests each year. The end result was the exams were stolen from her classroom by a student who was frustrated by the whole situation. The thief gave the exams to their classmates and the whole class actually kept their mouths shut. I was surprised but this group of kids were serious about this class and wanted their work returned.
Overall, what is the purpose of a teacher keeping test papers if they won't return the exam to the student or even allow them to look at it? This DOES cut parents out of the equation. I would be very angry if my daughter's work was not returned to her so that I can look at it.
Situations like this are why I don't utilize the public schools. I send my child to a parochial school and it has been worth every cent.

Posted by: kodonivan | November 18, 2010 10:39 AM | Report abuse

Some of you aren't understanding this. Welcome to 2010 and the data driven model. I know it doesn't fit your existing model, but things have changed.

Teachers may not be making up their own tests. In my school district, chapter & unit tests in subjects covered by end-of-year standardized tests now contain specific items inserted by curriculum supervisors.

The items on these tests are then evaluated on a district level for data collection and (presumably) the results are forwarded to the teacher to reinforce areas where their students had difficulty. The district adapts the curriculum.

We are not allowed to release these tests. Students and parents may review the items under direct supervision.

So it is not that teachers are anti- parent, or ant-tutor, etc. We are not allowed to release the tests.

Posted by: eduk81 | November 18, 2010 10:49 AM | Report abuse

This is a real problem and very frustrating. As a parent, it drove me crazy but most of the teachers in my children's school did not give back exams. I am not talking about midterms and finals, but just regular periodic exams. They made it clear that they did not want to have to write new tests every year and therefore, students were not allowed to take them home. I thought this was terrible and the school had no formal policy regarding this--leaving it up to individual teachers. Yes, tests were passed out in class, but students can benefit much more if they are allowed to take home the exams and take the time to see exactly where they made mistakes and learn from them.

Some people have commented that this is a form of grade grubbing. Nothing could be further from the truth. Teachers need to hand back tests, corrected essays and lab reports if they expect students to learn from their mistakes and not repeat them.

Posted by: JR03 | November 18, 2010 11:28 AM | Report abuse

--It sounds like teacher laziness to me. Is it so hard for an individual teacher to write new exam questions rather than relying on ones from past years?
--"Common Assessment" tests created by committees of teachers will inevitably result in a generic, superficial learning experience for students. In addition, these "common assessment" tests will allow less capable teachers to piggy-back on the efforts of more capable teachers.
--The next logical step in this progression would be for the State of Virginia to determinine what aspects of Shakespeare are important for all Virginia high school students to learn. --One can only imagine the spectacle of that!!

Posted by: jshay | November 18, 2010 11:52 AM | Report abuse

and just think, after 3 years they cannot be fired.

govt employees should not be unionizing.


Posted by: docwhocuts | November 18, 2010 11:54 AM | Report abuse

I am stunned by this many responses. Please keep them coming. This is obviously an issue that needs more coverage, and I plan to return to it. It would help me to know where readers have encountered the issue, and how frequently, and for which tests does the no return policy apply.

For bendergary---You make a valid complaint. I tried to get teacher reactions. I asked the principal to let all of her teachers involved know what my email was, and invite them to send me their views. None of them contacted me. This is very common. Teachers don't see much upside in talking to the press on controversial issues. I also checked in with the district director on this issue, who answered several questions about why teachers would withhold exams. You see that attributed to her.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | November 18, 2010 12:19 PM | Report abuse

Again with this idea that teachers cannot be fired after three years - Any employee, including teachers, administrators, and superintendents can be fired. All tenure means in the public schools is that the authority must show cause for the firing. If the authority cannot show cause for firing a poor employee, it is the fault of the authority, not the employee, or the union.

Posted by: theatrebob | November 18, 2010 12:38 PM | Report abuse

Jay, You spend a lot of time in your column promoting the testing model. Don't be shocked by this result.

Posted by: theatrebob | November 18, 2010 12:40 PM | Report abuse

Except for final exams, I got to see all my tests, from ElHi through college. In college it was standard practice for fraternities to keep a file of test questions - in high school a good student can pretty much guess the general range of essay questions or problem types that a teacher will give. What teachers want to hide, I suspect, are the multiple choice or fill in the blank questions that test student retention of minutia from read material (like what color are the glasses on the billboard in The Great Gatsby).
In addition, I don't hold that discussing last years test questions with with upcoming students as cheating. In some way that is the right way to prepare for tests, to know what the teacher has looked for in the past.
John Dickert
Mount Vernon Farms

Posted by: 12191946 | November 18, 2010 12:54 PM | Report abuse

We've been told that we cannot give back MCPS created tests. We can go over the material and allow the students to see their corrected tests, but they don't get to keep them. That is county policy. We can give back teacher created tests to my knowledge.

Posted by: musiclady | November 18, 2010 12:58 PM | Report abuse

And while we're at it, how about teachers who assign term papers or research papers (usually over a holiday vacation) and then take well over a month or two to even bother grading them and returning them to students? This happened frequently to my kids who were both frustrated at having put in substantial effort which they felt went unappreciated. By the time they finally got the papers back, they usually didn't even bother to read any comments the teacher might have written because at that point, they had lost interest in the subject.

Posted by: lisamc31 | November 18, 2010 1:16 PM | Report abuse

District-wide common assessments, used to evaluate whether students in the same course, but with different teachers, are getting a comparable preparation, are very important, especially when the course is a prerequisite for a more advanced course. These assessments cannot be newly constructed each year (or each semester for schools with semester block schedules) without a tremendous amount of effort. Not giving these to students is understandable.

When a school purchases a test bank of questions for use by teachers, how do copyright laws play a role in whether teachers using questions from the test bank can give the test to the students to keep? If a test bank has a limited number of questions, but is associated with a text the school is using for 7 years or more, does a teacher have a responsibility to preserve the security of those questions for the sake of all teachers in that district and other districts use that text and its ancillaries?

Posted by: Thinking123 | November 18, 2010 2:09 PM | Report abuse

The people who are citing "teacher laziness" must have no idea of the work that goes into teaching large-group classes for little pay. Teaching in public schools is degrading enough without the accusations of laziness from parents irate about their children's low scores. Teachers simply don't have time to create a unique, worthwhile test for every testing situation. Should they give back the tests and then make new ones for students who will be taking the tests later in the day? For students who missed the class session and will need to make up the test? The teachers I know work well above 40 hours a week just keeping things together using proven materials without having to recreate those materials after every use.

Posted by: PJFlamingo | November 18, 2010 2:10 PM | Report abuse

I give my students back their answer sheets, and we go over the test during class. However, the students don't get copies of the test questions because we're so limited in the number of copies that we can make that I only have 36 copies of the test that I use during every period all day long on test days. There's no way I can make 156 copies of every test to give to the students to take home. Are there schools that are actually allowed to make that many copies of tests? I'm surprised that any students get to take tests home.

Posted by: landerk1 | November 18, 2010 2:10 PM | Report abuse

Four issues I have encountered:

1. Sometimes my daughter (in HS) brings home scannable test/quiz answer sheets. These are useless for future study since they don't include the questions. It varies whether the teacher allows the student to keep the test questions.

2. What precludes a student from writing the question he/she got wrong along with the answer, explanation, or pertinent information gleaned during class discussion of the test for future study with or without a tutor?

3. Tutors have limited time to work with a student so wrong answers on tests and quizzes from class provide a quick picture of what a student knows and doesn't know. Using this information, the tutor will know what material to focus on during a session.

4. My son's middle school in Prince George's County provides feedback to each student on the skills associated with items missed on the quarterly standardized county benchmark assessments. For example, I receive a printout indicating my child missed item #6, summarizing literary text or item #2, probability without replacement. I don't necessarily need to see the test question to know what to work on to improve such skills. I don't know if all schools in the county provide this level of feedback to the students/parents following these standardized countywide tests. In his school, these tests don't count toward quarterly grades as the teacher has not developed or seen the questions before students take the test (and it is possible a skill has not yet been taught).

Posted by: mgribben | November 18, 2010 2:37 PM | Report abuse

"The people who are citing "teacher laziness" must have no idea of the work that goes into teaching large-group classes for little pay. Teaching in public schools is degrading enough without the accusations of laziness from parents irate about their children's low scores."

Wah, wah, wah, let me get my violin. Teachers in my district of 2300 students average $86,000 for 182 days of work, with some teachers making in excess of $130,000. Maximum class size is 28 students. The Superintendent earns $300,000 with benefits. For that kind of money, it wouldn't kill the teachers to create alternate tests for make-ups and new exams each year. Time for public school teachers to understand we the taxpayers are not their country club/retirement fund.

And to the teacher who seems to think it's easy to fire a tenured teacher, think again. In my district, over $450,000 was spent on legal fees (again, the people's money) to try and fire a music teacher who had knocked a student out of their chair and slammed the piano lid on a kid's fingers. The best the district could get was a 1 yr. suspension without pay.

Posted by: lisamc31 | November 18, 2010 2:47 PM | Report abuse

My elementary school kids are allowed to bring their math tests home for one day - long enough for me to sign them. Once I kept one a day longer to show my husband who had been out of town and my son reported that he "got in trouble" for not handing it back in time. Now, when the tests come home I make photocopies if I think it's necessary. If my son gets a 12/20, but the class moves on to the next subject nonetheless, how else am I supposed to get him caught up? The county sure doesn't allow to the teachers the time to help him.

Posted by: mkeller720 | November 18, 2010 2:52 PM | Report abuse

I have 160 students in five classes (4 sections of AP Government and 1 Section of US History). By county regulations I have to give 18 grades per quarter. This translates into 2,880 items that need to be graded every nine weeks. (yes some take more time to grade than other). In addition I create lesson plans, go over readings in class, etc. My curriculum in US history alone, requires me to cover US history from Colonial time to the 1990s. To say on pace I will need to cover the Civil War in two to three at the most 90 min. periods (that includes testing within that time). The point is that due to common assessments, the fact that it is much easier to cheat today given technology (heck a kid could take thier exams, take a photo copy of the exams, and go and sell it), and the fact that teachers are over-extended, you are not going to see new exams every year. I change my exams each year but not entirely. To be it is more an issue of time and students need to come and see the teacher after-school

Posted by: smith6 | November 18, 2010 2:59 PM | Report abuse

The easier a test is to cheat on (short answer, multiple choice) the easier it is to modify each year. And the easier it is to grade.

You can ask a question about the Boston Massacre or McCormick reaper three or four different ways.

If a school devises an assessment that they feel perfectly measures retention and crystallizes the content of a certain course, then let them try and keep it inviolate. High school teachers plan, and high school students laugh.

Posted by: gardyloo | November 18, 2010 3:06 PM | Report abuse


1. I have 140 AP Government students. For their summer reading project they wrote an essay that ranged between 3 to 5 pages. That is a total of 4900 pages to read CRITICALLY and provide feed-back. How long do you think such a process takes? I tell my students and their parents that I take each essay seriously and want to provide the same level of analysis to page 4900 of their writing as page 1. Yes it is going to take time.
2. Man, I would love to know what county you live in! $130,000!!! Really?! I make $57,000.
3. I start my day at 4:00 AM to grade and prepare for the day. I stop doing school work at 6:00 PM so I can go home, be with my wife and two children. I do about 6 hours on the weekend. That means I work about 76 hours a week.
4. I do my work because I LOVE IT. I love working with students, their parents and fellow teacher who have a passion for preparing the next generation. For you to say that I see tax payers as my "country club" is insulting.

Posted by: smith6 | November 18, 2010 3:11 PM | Report abuse

Common assessment is the buzzword of secondary education. FCPS is mandating creation of these common assessments to ensure students are ready to perform on SOL tests. But the county, unlike the Commonwealth, is not paying a testing company to create these tests. Instead, it falls to the individual departments and departmental teams within schools to create the tests. This duty is in addition to preparation of lessons and course-based tests; conferences; bus duty (or other individual professional responsibilities); parent contacts; team, department, and faculty meetings; grading other assessments; and actually teaching kids every day. How much time is there in a day to remake the 4-10 common assessments per year most schools are mandating?

If Ms. Jackson’s son took a common assessment test, he may never get it back because giving it back would compromise the common test. If her son is reviewing the test in class with the teacher and has the opportunity to make corrections in class, what is the problem?

With regards to lisamc31’s comment regarding the time it takes to return essays, assessing writing is time consuming, which is why so many standardized tests rely on multiple choice. Let me give what I consider an enlightening example of the time involved in grading. Let’s say your child writes an essay. How long would you like the teacher spend in thoughtful consideration of this work? Would 15 minutes be sufficient? If your child is in a class of 32, one of two such classes the teacher collects essays from, the grading will take 960 minutes for those essays, or 16 hours of overtime if done outside of the school day for that single assignment. Most teachers in high school have between 130 and 160 students. If the teacher has 5 sections of the same course, a single assignment for 160 students would take 2400 minutes, or 40 hours at 15 minutes per essay. As long as the teacher uses those returned writings as an opportunity to learn through discussion and revision, does it matter when the learning takes place?

Posted by: ChrisinVA | November 18, 2010 3:33 PM | Report abuse

I am going to do another column about this, which I won't write until the week after Thanksgiving. If any of the commenters above, particularly those in the Wash. area, wouldn't mind my using their real names, and where they live, please email me at

Posted by: Jay Mathews | November 18, 2010 3:34 PM | Report abuse

Good educational practice would dictate that students see where they made mistakes by having assessments returned to them. Common sense then dictates that the common assessments and major projects be then collected and stored by the teacher to prevent them being "shared". Parents who want to see the assessments should be welcome to come in and read them in the room. Parents must realize that anyone with a cell phone can take a quick picture of any test and send it to all friends or post it on facebook. This is the reality of how easy it is to cheat in this tech world. Posters who are focusing on "teacher laziness" should spend just one day in our world - they would be humbled and exhausted! It is a sad commentary that such views are still part of the urban legend about teachers having soft jobs. Most of the high school teachers I know work at the minimum 60 hours week and are forced to work summers or take second jobs to pay the bills.

Posted by: YBQMKD | November 18, 2010 3:46 PM | Report abuse

Creating good test questions is NOT easy. Good questions take a lot of time to develop. Short answer or essay questions are a bit easier to create, but multiple choice questions are HARD to create. Developing 4-5 plausible answers is difficult. I return the exam to my students and go over the correct answers and why they are correct, but I absolutely do not allow students to take the exam home. Student share tests and then that test is useless. This is not about teachers taking the easy way out, but about developing a good test that accurately measures students' understanding of the material. It was through a years-long process that I have developed really good tests that don't confuse students and that measure what they know.

Posted by: campbell373 | November 18, 2010 5:25 PM | Report abuse

A number of posters have defended this on the basis that "kids cheat." Returning a test after all students have taken it should not contribute to cheating unless teachers are foolish enough to reuse questions -- a matter of laziness on the part of some teachers who choose not to take a little time and write a new test each year. Instead of testing whether a student can balance one chemical equation -- test a different one!

It was only by seeing my child's tests that I began to understand the specifics of her particular problems in math and chemistry -- she was introducing errors by mis-copying from line-to-line, something which the teacher had not caught, but which became obvious when you could look at two or three quizzes. Without seeing the actual work it might have appeared that she didn't understand some concepts. The actual work helped us work with her on a strategy to check each copy step before she tried to go forward. It made a huge difference.

Posted by: bk0512 | November 18, 2010 5:35 PM | Report abuse

Jay, you really should have interviewed some test developers and got their perspective on this, you might find that there are very good reasons for not always allowing students to keep test papers.

For high-stakes assessment, it's necessary to "equate" test forms to ensure all students are treated fairly. The most effective way to do this is to have some shared questions appearing on different forms of the test. Different test forms will typically not be of identical overall difficulty, so the common items are used to equate scores from the different test forms. This allows students who get an easier or more difficult version to be compared.

This procedure relies on strict security. If some students have access to questions beforehand, the difficulty of those items becomes unstable across test forms and equating becomes impossible.

If all items are replaced each year, then it is possible to return test papers after all students have taken the test. However, this makes it impossible to equate between test forms from different years, which is essential for comparing score gains between students from different years. Ideally, well performing items will be used to equate the tests given in different years and poorly performing items will be replaced.

There are other ways of equating tests, but common item equating using operational test items is preferable, so returning test papers is very problematic if we wish to compare students between years.

Another thing to consider is that not all tests are intended to be formative, i.e. to guide study and learning. That is a very important part of classroom assessments, perhaps the most important part, but final exams are a different thing entirely. The purpose of these is purely summative, i.e. to see how much students know. When students leave the test room, it's much too late to begin studying. If they didn't know the answers before they took the test, learning them afterwards will not help them. If the textbook or course materials aren't giving clear guidance on what they need to learn, then it is the textbook or course materials that need to be addressed, not the test.

Posted by: Trev1 | November 18, 2010 5:40 PM | Report abuse

Jay says, "But classroom teachers and district instructional specialists are introducing homegrown standardized unit and semester exams."

Stop and think a minute about what a "district instructional specialist" is, and who she works for. No, we teachers aren't making these internal non-standardized assessment instruments. They are part of the venture-capital attack on teaching, used to monitor teachers' adherence to the dumbed-down laundry list of trivia and drivel produced by a proprietary benchmarking system.

In my building, not only are students not allowed to go over the tests, neither are their teachers. We see them when we pick them up on the designated day. We have to turn them in to the office within a few days, where they are locked up. We have to grade the scantrons immediately in the office, and turn in the scantron machine's analysis of each class. We are allowed to keep the student scantrons. We are given a list of the standard bullets supposedly reflected by the item numbers, and instructed to reflect on why our students missed them.

The tests are constructed, not by the teachers, but by a "teacher-leader" who is ambitious to become an administrator. While my students were taking their final last year, I was able to spot three defective questions with errors in the answer choices, or insufficient information, because I am a fast reader with fast computation skills. Otherwise, we never would have known the answer key was defective, and neither would the kids or parents.

I notice the same commentators who support all this business-driven testing idiocy are taking advantage of the opportunity to blame "teachers" for it! I have to wonder if some of you aren't being paid by DSI, as part of their organized FUD campaign against public school teachers.

Posted by: mport84 | November 18, 2010 6:08 PM | Report abuse

"Most universities give test scores, they do not return the exams to students. Of course some do, but this practice has been in use at the university level for decades.

This is completely false. I am currently completing my Master's and completed my Bachelor's four years ago. Almost all professors at the university level make new tests each semester. In fact, they even go so far as to pass out the old exams so that people can study with them.

The easiest way to avoid this sort of cheating is to assume they have the exam, in fact, pass it out, and then make a new exam that specifically does not use the same material. This is pure laziness by the teachers ...

Posted by: wildguy55 | November 18, 2010 6:37 PM | Report abuse

RE:"Steve argues that there's something special about the tests--standards, not content, blah blah blah. But I don't see why it's all that much time. My tests are designed to test the standards--in fact, my content addresses the standards. Not sure what he sees as this huge difference."

Common assessments (in my understanding) can't be reflective of the content taught in a particular teacher's course. Common assessments are supposed to mimic high-stakes tests, which don't assess students' mastery of the content covered in the course. High-stakes tests introduce totally new content that supposedly assesses students' mastery of the standards, but what they really assess is students background knowledge and reading skills. Our pacing calendars are built around standards, not content. A teacher can use whatever content they want to address the standards. One 10th grade English teacher might teach Night by Elie Wiesel and another might teach Animal Farm by George Orwell. The common assessment can't have content on it from either of those novels because, again, it would not reflect the nature of the high-stakes tests. So teachers are teaching a novel or a rhetorical text and testing on that content in the classroom, then a common assessment is given with totally different content. I guess you have to do it to get it. Part of the problem with the process is that most teachers agree that it's nonsense. Maybe that's why people don't get it. Because it doesn't make sense in the first place. Don't get it twisted, teachers don't want to engage in these shenanigans. They're being coerced.

Posted by: stevendphoto | November 18, 2010 9:25 PM | Report abuse

This is pure laziness by the teachers ...

If anything it's doing the best with a bad situation. In Fairfax County, teachers are required to have one graded assessment per week and are "strongly encouraged" (read this as "we would require this but sometimes your class only meets once a week so having two grades in one class period might be excessive one week out of the year"). If I only needed to administer 2 to 3 assessments per semester as a college professor would, I would have the time to use long form assessments(which are extremely easy to create, but very time consuming to grade). Instead I need to create assessments that can be graded and recorded quickly, especially since we are now required to provide a fairly accurate itemized list of grades to the parents every two weeks. As a result we get the multiple choice test.

The thing is multiple choice tests are a pain to create particulalry in AP level classes. In my elective class (where I do let the students take the quizzes home, but not the midterm and the final since they are summative assessments) the questions tend to be lower order and as a result are pretty easy to put together. In addition, I don't use a copyrighted test bank for those questions, so I don't need to wory about civil liability in the tens of thousands of dollars for violating the "For Classroom Use Only" warning that is usually near the copyright information on that type of thing. In my AP class however, I generally do not ask questions at the Application level or below on Bloom's Taxonomy. As a result creating those questions along with reasonable distractors is quite literally a pain in my brain. You may then ask, "Why not use the textbook test generator?" The answer to that is quite simple - they stink. The questions they provide tend to be lower level questions that are so specific to the book they are worthless particularly if you, like me, use the textbook as one reference tool out of many in your class.

Posted by: Rob63 | November 18, 2010 9:38 PM | Report abuse

here we go with the 2 graded assignments a week. For me that's 10 assignments I have to create every week (since I teach 5 different classes).... over the course of a school year that adds up to 360 different assignments to create, then 10,800 grades. One year. To put it in perspective, the average MLB Starting pitcher throws about 3,000 pitches every year.

Posted by: someguy100 | November 18, 2010 10:59 PM | Report abuse

I think mgribben hits squarely.

There isn't any reason a intrested STUDENT (not his/her parents or tutor) can't take notes during the post-test review and use them to review weak spots.

Perhaps the gripe here is that the PARENTS are more concerned about testing weaknesses than the students. Students have to take the responsiblity for themselves.

Posted by: RedBird27 | November 19, 2010 6:26 AM | Report abuse

campbell3773 makes a good point; that multiple choice questions are particularly hard to write because each answer must be somewhat plausible.

Jay I do hope you will speak with some test designers before your write your next column.

Teachers, administrators, and the general public should think creatively to solve this situation. We have so much technology available to us now.

As school districts are moving more and more towards common assessments, especially in the upper grades, for unit tests and final exams -- would it be possible to release the questions missed, but not the possible answers?

Common assessments given for each child can be stored electronically, and parents and tutors could access at home just the questions asked. Kids can come home and tell mom and dad, "I missed questions 12, 15, 25, 27 28 and 30" and the parents and tutors could see just the questions on line, not the answers.

This presumes a very large database of questions for each unit exam, but given the number of teachers in our large counties I can't see why it would take more than a summer of test-item writing to come up with a large enough database, so large that it would be impossible to cram the items into short term memory -- they would need to be stored in long-term memory, which is called "learning".

Posted by: CallieB | November 19, 2010 6:45 AM | Report abuse

This happened to my daughter last year (at West Potomac HS). A straight A student, she had - inexplicably- a D on a major test. After repeated requests she never did get a copy of the test to find out what happened. The teacher actually told her "don't worry about it".. but we all still wonder what really happened there. Did she misread the instructions? Accidentally skip a section? Or, actually not get the concept? We'll never know.

Posted by: OkeyDoke | November 19, 2010 7:00 AM | Report abuse

Under FERPA, Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, I believe parents of kids in public school have the right to review all school records pertaining to their child, within 45 days of making the request. I believe this includes all tests which are "directly related to a student". Schools might not be required to send copies of tests home, but parents shoudl know that they do have the right to review all tests their child has taken in school.

Posted by: CallieB | November 19, 2010 7:00 AM | Report abuse

I am learning more and more. Thanks to CallieB for the good suggestion.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | November 19, 2010 10:33 AM | Report abuse

I agree that parents and students have a right to see their tests. I also agree that teachers have finite resources and have a right to reuse effective test questions without having to reinvent the wheel every summer... a task that takes far, far longer than you might think. (In some AP courses, AP teachers use elements from "practice tests" disseminated by the AP that they are prohibited from distributing in that manner.) It's a fair balance to say that a student (and parent) is free to come in and spend time during or after school looking over and analyzing the test, but the test needs to remain in the classroom.

Posted by: joshofstl1 | November 19, 2010 12:02 PM | Report abuse

Summer? I've never known what classes I'm teaching until I come back in the fall.

Posted by: someguy100 | November 19, 2010 12:37 PM | Report abuse

@someguy100 -- teachers work (for pay) in my county in the summer, writing curriculum. With common assessments teacher shoudlh aven to write their own tests. The same courses are supposedly being taught across all the high schools and middle schools (with exceptions of course). Each course has unit tests and a final exam -- they should be the same for each teacher and each school. They all take the same MSA or SOL at the end of the year. One teacher shouldn't have to come up with test questions for each unit -- teachers should be paid to write numerous test questions for each unit test. These test questions should be available to all teachers who teach that course.

Posted by: CallieB | November 19, 2010 1:28 PM | Report abuse


I don't mind the idea of releasing multiple choice questions and answers, but I'm not sure the idea is feasible.
If CB/ETS were to release annually all AP multiple-choice questions, they would need to develop a unique test each year. The cost of the exam would go up, significantly. And, the statisticians would have a fit regarding comparative measures across testing populations from year to year.

Posted by: professor70 | November 19, 2010 3:46 PM | Report abuse

What drove us crazy was that teachers would hold students to strict deadlines and extraordinarily high standards in AP/IB classes, but take 6-8 weeks to return an essay assignment. (Seriously. I kept track. An essay submitted in early October was handed back in early December -- not even the same marking period.) By that point, my kids had already turned in subsequent work, but without the feedback that would enable them to improve. Part of quality teaching is the feedback loop.

One son went into his Bio class at lunch to look at the questions he missed on a test (not allowed to bring home the test; he just had a Scantron sheet). Helpful at that moment, but useless when it came time to review for finals.

Same teacher refused to print out or put PowerPoint presentations online for the class; the teacher wanted them to take notes "to make them pay attention." And the problem with students taking notes on the PP is...? Or for the student to download the PP at home and use it in combination with notes is...? My son said he spent so much time trying to frantically take notes in class that he didn't get to process the info and ask questions.

It makes sense for students to use old assessments as a basis for preparing for midterms and finals. It helps them to focus on the main ideas and to organize their work -- skills they will certainly need in life.

Do we want our kids to actually LEARN or just regurgitate?

Posted by: DerwoodMom | November 19, 2010 7:24 PM | Report abuse

I am intrigued by CallieB's plan to give students access to the whole test bank and let them actually study. As an educator I try hard not to play "gotcha" and give the essay questions in advance each week so that students can prepare.

But I also agree with several posters who have pointed to the rampant and viral cheating among high school students who with a cell phone camera take photos of tests or problems or can quickly text the answer s to their friends. This actually occurred in AP exams and invalidated a whole school's set of exams in Southern California.

Every teacher must have at least two sets of tests and rotate them. I send the exams home for test corrections, knowing full well I won't get every exam back. But the benefits outweigh the negatives.

Posted by: Hrod1 | November 20, 2010 12:15 PM | Report abuse

Some teachers are lazy, some aren't.


As a point of policy, I do not let my AP world kids take home the
tests. They can, any day, during any time I am free and they are look at the tests. Same with their parents.

The dumb idea, in my opinion, of having teachers re-write tests is a waste of time. Don't get me wrong, I change my tests every year, but I also keep about 80% of the questions. This time better spent by the teacher either grading essays or reading in the content or pedagogy areas.

I do not use any test bank questions. They are all mine. Mine are better. If I had to give back multiple choice tests I would just stop giving them (I do not give them in any other class - I even teach classes with no tests!) - we would just go over the questions as a class. My time is better spent doing other things than spending 5+ hours creating a test (I give 5 in my AP class).

Posted by: worldhistoryteacher | November 20, 2010 9:51 PM | Report abuse

How does AP justify not returning exams to students? How do the folks that make the SAT tests justify not returning them?

I am a teacher who returns tests in some classes and not in others.

Last year I taught Algebra 2 and AP Statistics. The nature of an Algebra 2 course allows me to return tests and write new ones each year. It only takes a couple of hours to write a decent Algebra 2 test from scratch.

In half a dozen years of teaching AP Statistics, I never returned a test. Graded homework papers and quizzes were returned but I kept each student's tests in a folder that they could and did look at whenever they wanted to but I did not allow the tests to go home.

It is easy to change the numbers in a quadratic equation to come up with a brand new problem that tests the same concept.

To create a new multiple choice AP caliber question on the nature of sampling methods is an altogether different matter.

I do not think that I denied my students a learning opportunity by not letting them keep their tests. Had we never gone over the tests and had I refused to answer questions...

Not letting them keep tests allowed me to challenge each class year to year with high quality questions. To do so would only shortchange future students with no significant benefit to current students.

Posted by: RobertK1 | November 21, 2010 11:56 AM | Report abuse

To those who seem to think that creating good tests and good multiple choice questions is easy and say that teachers should stop whining about the work:

The work/time spent on creating new test items for each test could be better spent creating lessons and responding to student short answer and essay answers on tests and to essays and papers.

As someone who helped develop test items for two sets of state-wide tests in civics and history, those who say test items are easy to create are full of the excrement of the male bovine!
As noted in other comments, all answer choices must be plausible; the incorrect ones should be wrong but not in a trivial way; the correct answer should be significant but not obvious and easy to just guess - I could go on. For example, it is much easier to create an incorrect choice in a multiple-choice item which uses few words, while it is hard to create a meaningful correct answer which does not take more words.
It was not unusual for 3-4 teachers to take 2-3 hours to create half a dozen draft items, which would then be reviewed by the testing company, field-tested, and returned with data on how students did.

None of the foregoing deals with the issue of whether the the item really tests knowledge of the idea/issue/fact which the teacher intends to test or is just trivial pursuit and/or easily guessed.

Posted by: aspnh | November 21, 2010 1:03 PM | Report abuse

As a teacher who has 21 students out of 110 who need to currently make up a test, no I am not handing them back. Students are welcome to stay after to look at the exams and their answers to see what they got wrong. Out of the number of kids who already took the test, ten have shown up to correct their answers for credit back. The rest just take the score and move on. I do not deny them that choice.

Posted by: zeptattoo | November 22, 2010 2:02 PM | Report abuse

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