Too many do-overs

Flub the SATs? Try it again and again, erasing all but your best scores.  There are too many do-overs and not enough acknowledged failure in our culture, argues James Bowman, scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, in The Wall Street Journal.

On her most recent album, the popular chanteuse Joni Mitchell rewrote Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem, “If . . . ,” changing his words,

If you can fill the unforgiving minute

With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run . . .

to her own,

If you can fill the journey of a minute

With sixty seconds worth of wonder

and delight.

Of course, there are no more unforgiving minutes in the wonder and delight of Ms. Mitchell’s imaginary land of endless do-overs — which gives the lie to her subsequent promise: “Then the Earth is yours and everything that’s in it, / But more than that I know you’ll be all right.”

No you won’t. If you fail, sooner or later that failure will have to be recognized, confronted and put to rights. Not to do so in a timely fashion is only to spread the consequences of failure much more widely — to the whole educational system in the case of the SATs and the ordinary taxpayer in the case of the bailouts. Both deserve better.

Compare Kipling’s poem to Mitchell’s version. Of course, Kipling’s ends with: “You’ll be a man, my son.” Very un-PC.

About Joanne


  1. Kipling’s “If” was one of the first poems I read to my son after I brought him home. I’ll continue to read it to him often.

    While I do believe in “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again,” I also believe that failure in that first attempt, then getting up to try again is what builds true strength and confidence. I don’t believe in countless “do overs” until it’s perfect–I only grade one revision from each of my students, after all. If they don’t get that A, they don’t get the A.

    And I always remind them that, after my class, few professors and no bosses permit a revision after the initial grade/assessment is assigned.

  2. What is the argument against do-overs for tests such as the SATs?

    The SAT is intended to measure educational attainment. Unless we believe that educational attainment stops at some point, there is no reason to stop attempting the SAT.

    In the case of a given class, the same argument applies. The only difference is, in the class, there is a time limit, as well as a limit on the capacity of the facilitator to mark tests. But nothing should prevent the person from attempting the same class again.

  3. As a five-time SAT taker in my youth, I find Bowman’s article very lame. First, he seems to believe that students primarily retake the SAT again so that their poor self-esteem will remain intact. No, they retake it to get a good score so they can get into the college of their choice! There are much less boring ways to feel better about themselves than taking the SAT. 😉

    This paragraph in Bowman’s article particularly bugs me:

    Of course, Score Choice will also give what many would see as an unfair advantage to those who can afford the time and the money to take the test more than once — and the more they can take it, the greater the advantage. For colleges, it must make the job of assessing their applicants’ abilities more difficult and may thus contribute to the trend toward downgrading or eliminating standardized testing in college admissions.

    Does it limit poor students who are financially less able to retake it? No. It’s not that expensive a test. The basic exam costs $45, and students can request a fee waiver if they don’t have enough money. My mother was raising seven children at the time she paid for me to take the SAT four times (my father was still financing things when I took the SAT for the first time in eighth grade). As for not having time to retake it, if teenagers can’t wake up early on Saturday morning once in a while, they’re going to have bigger problems than their SAT scores. If anything, the SAT allows poorer students a shot at scholarships that they wouldn’t otherwise get, not having been able to afford all the expensive extracurricular enrichment activities that grace the application forms of more prosperous teens. As for colleges, any college using its collective brain will continue to rely on standardized testing (even if their applicants *horror* take the tests more than once) because of grade inflation and uneven academic standards throughout the country and the world; the SAT and the ACT tests are still the simplest meaningful way to compare students from different educational backgrounds.

  4. Devilbunny says:

    The problem is not that you take it more than once; it’s the whitewashing of all previous attempts, so that you replace a growing picture with a snapshot. I took the SAT three times – once via the TIP program, in seventh grade, and twice as a junior/senior. Colleges got a better idea of my abilities (I was stronger in math and weaker in English than my first junior-year score indicated, and my second score reflected that) than they would have otherwise.

  5. Robert Wright says:

    Don’t be hard on Joni Mitchell. Her early work was delightfully depressing.

    The Last Time I Saw Richard is devoid of all hope.

    Other songs described love as a sickness, as just an opportunity to hurt another person.

    So, she’s changed her tune?

    I wouldn’t know. I stopped listening to her after her third album.

  6. Robert Wright says:

    The worst example in education today is what they call “Recovery.”

    Recovery is a 2nd chance given to a student who flunks a class the first time.

    There’s nothing wrong with 2nd chances. What’s wrong is that the 2nd chance in a Recovery class is just a second chance for the system to find any excuse in the world to pass the student.

    There is no such thing as failure in a Recovery class. If a test is given, all a student has to do is bubble in an answer for all the questions. That alone earns a passing grade. All questions have to be answered, true, but there are no wrong answers.

    You can “recover” from your F in English by taking a Recovery class that won’t have you read one single book. You’ll be asked to read selections. You’ll be asked to write down what character you liked best. And you have to do it. But all answers are OK, with the spelling and grammar of your choice.

    A Recovery class just requires seat time. And if you put your head down and refuse to do the busy work, the chances are you’ll still pass.

    Schools with Recovery programs have more of their students graduate.

    But I think it does more harm than good.

  7. So how does one confront failure and set things right? It seems do-over would have to be part of the solution. Adding in do-differently would seem in order too.

  8. tim-10-ber says:

    How else does one learn except by “failure”. They look at what went right and what went wrong, learn from it and move it forward. What is wrong with this? If this is called do over then so be it — this is reality…

    If we had to stop with failure when we first learned to walk…

  9. Students generally get to pick & choose which application essays to write, which letters of recommendation to send, and which SAT-II subject test scores to submit. Why shouldn’t they get to pick which SAT scores to submit as well?

  10. heroditus huxley, you should read your son “Harp Song of the Dane Women”, a much better poem. Robert Wright: I wish I had a river to sail away on …. with that little mocking jingle bells riff.

    Now this blog is really going somewhere.

  11. SAT scores don’t change that much over multiple tests. Typical change is less than 50 pts. Not that great. Taking it four times increases profits, though. Hmm, could this be the real impetus behind the policy change? Why not take it a third time; I can just throw out the score if I do worse!

    It’s not the end of the world after all.