My kids (12, 14) attend a school in the US in which the mathematics department has a policy of not returning tests to the kids.

I have very strong feelings about this (I think it is an obviously bad policy), but would like to gather any research/evidence that supports either case. By support I mean leads to a positive outcome for the children.

Any research or hard evidence would be most welcome.

Edit: I should mention that the kids get a look at their tests in the classroom after the tests are graded. However, I think this puts the onus on the kids to quickly spot errors and improvements. I know that I often have to stare at something for a long time before I see the problem.

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    $\begingroup$ While I agree with your sentiments, I think it's very unlikely that any research has been done on this one way or another. Research rarely focuses on individual practices at such a fine grain of detail. $\endgroup$
    – mweiss
    Commented Oct 25, 2015 at 20:11
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    $\begingroup$ I've heard it stated that there is extremely strong scientific evidence that prompt feedback helps learning. However, I got this second-hand (from someone who works in educational measurement), and don't have a reference to the literature. The reason for the policy should be pretty obvious. The teachers are lazy. They want to use and reuse the same multiple-choice tests for year after year, pulling the stack photocopied exams out of their desk drawer each time. $\endgroup$
    – user507
    Commented Oct 25, 2015 at 21:29
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    $\begingroup$ @BenCrowell: I suspect convenience is a motivator, but in this case (I will edit the question), the kids get to see their tests in class, but not take them home. $\endgroup$
    – copper.hat
    Commented Oct 25, 2015 at 21:32
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    $\begingroup$ a few arguments that may help convince them against this policy: 1) any student with a phone can quickly snap a picture of the test making this whole policy moot, 2) students, esp. ones with learning disabilities, will get nothing out of quickly looking over a test in class without having it to reference back to later, 3) if time is spent going over the tests in class, students can write down the questions while they are being reviewed, also making the policy moot. I agree with @BenCrowell that this is definitely a policy born out of laziness that is hurting the students in your school $\endgroup$
    – celeriko
    Commented Oct 25, 2015 at 21:48
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    $\begingroup$ I would think that at that age it is not the students' responsibility to spot errors and improvements. It is the job of the teacher to see what needs more study time. One possibility that doesn't seem to be listed here yet is that the school needs to keep the test as a record. Having never had a single real test paper returned to me in my entire education (and only a couple where I got to look at it at all), I don't understand why you feel so strongly about this. Surely the test are not the only feedback students' receive? If they are, I'd think that's more of a problem. $\endgroup$
    – Jessica B
    Commented Oct 26, 2015 at 7:56

5 Answers 5


Here is my best attempt at collecting the evidence requested.

OP has stated under David Ebert's answer that they would be happy with formative assessments being returned. However, many of the objections to returning assessments are with summative assessments (reduced cheating, "reduced variability"...). The point of formative assessment is not reliable measurement, but increased achievement.

There is empirical data on the benefits of well managed formative assessment in partnership with students ("achievement gains of one-half to two standard deviations" see below). Part of this is "continuous access" to the information, which I take to be the intent of the OP.

An easy to understand explanation of formative assessment: http://education.jhu.edu/PD/newhorizons/Better/articles/Spring2011.html

Margaret Heritage explains how formative assessment is carried out by teachers (tests and informal activities) and students (peer and self evaluation), and used by teachers (to improve teaching) and students (to guide their own learning).

Some principals of formative assessment:

"First, whatever method teachers use to elicit evidence of learning, it should yield information that is actionable by them and their students." "...students can take active steps to advance their own learning."

From all the above we can see that formative assessment is not solely created by or for the sole use of the teacher.

Rick Stiggins (below) explains that formative assessment is created in partnership with students, and with students having "continuous access" to the information.

A widely referenced paper is:

Rick Stiggins, From Formative Assessment to Assessment FOR Learning: A Path to Success in Standards-Based Schools, Phi Delta Kappan, Vol. 87, No. 04, December 2005, pp. 324-328.

sourced from: http://bibliotecadigital.academia.cl/bitstream/handle/123456789/586/Rick%20Stiggins.pdf

Some quotes:

"Assessment FOR learning rests on the understanding that students are data-based instructional decision makers too."

Students "must have continuous access to evidence of what they believe to be credible academic success, however small."

"Students partner with their teacher to continuously monitor their current level of attainment in relation to agreed-upon expectations so they can set goals for what to learn next and thus play a role in managing their own progress. Students play a special role in communicating evidence... to their families... "

"When consistently carried out as a matter of routine within and across classrooms, this [Assessment for Learning] has been linked to achievement gains of one-half to two standard deviations on high-stakes tests, and the largest gains made are by low achievers."

The thrust of the article is that as long as teachers see formative assessment as something that is owned by the teachers and primarily for use of the teachers, they are really missing the point of formative assessment.

Property Rights


From further reading, it is clear that it is the board - the institution - that is seeking ownership rights. Many teachers have apparently stated that they disagree with the boards position. Legal opinion also disagrees, and most commentators make it clear that society as a whole disagrees.

So, from a property perspective it is acknowledged that students are the owners of the material that they create while they are learning, unless it is produced under "work-for-hire", or the ownership has been explicitly signed over to the institution. The refusal to hand over material that has been created by students and is requested by those students, in absence of substantial overriding concerns (a necessary embargo period on the return of summative assessments) is a breach of property rights.

One university gets around this by including this clause:

When a student submits work as a course requirement, the student retains ownership of the work, but ownership of the physical or electronic document shall be vested in the College. The College is granted a perpetual, royalty-free license by the submitting student to make copies of the work for administrative and educational purposes.

So the university can hold on to coursework, as the physical document belongs to them. However it is clear that the university has no intention of permanently disallowing students from having access to material that they have produced. Allowing students to have a copy for themselves is necessary for them to practice their ownership of copyright.

Educational Philosophy

Several answers indicate that their personal preference is for students to have full access to tests, while departmental policies prohibit this. Like any institution, schools seek to keep as much information as possible internal to the organisation. This increases the power of the institution - which is not necessarily a bad thing, as empowered teachers can help students.

The fundamental error comes from the institutional (not personal) perspective that students are primarily an object that is taught, so an empowered teacher is more important to success than an empowered learner. It is this institutional attitude that is probably more damaging for student achievement than any particular policy on whether or not students have access to formative assessments.

  • $\begingroup$ This looks very interesting. I will need some time to digest. Very much appreciated. $\endgroup$
    – copper.hat
    Commented Oct 29, 2015 at 2:36
  • $\begingroup$ Excellent job at actually answering the original question, this is very helpful. I appreciate the distinction between formative and summative assessments, and I definitely agree with returning formative assessments. I would like to return all assessments, but sometimes institutional compromises must be made. $\endgroup$
    – BBS
    Commented Oct 29, 2015 at 12:33
  • $\begingroup$ @BBS it seems teachers so often have to compromise with their institutional context which is partly molded by economic and political constraints, and partly teachers just trying to find a way of making it work. And somehow, through it all, teachers still usually do a pretty good/amazing job of helping their students learn. $\endgroup$
    – Richard
    Commented Oct 29, 2015 at 14:20
  • $\begingroup$ The argument about property rights is simply wrong. The student owns a copyright on what the student wrote, if the material satisfies all the conditions of copyright. (An essay on Romeo and Juliet certainly would satisfy those conditions. A computation of 32+47 would not.) Assuming that it is a case where the student owns a copyright, that is a right to intellectual property, not a right to a physical object. The student does not have a legal right to owndership of their exam paper. $\endgroup$
    – user507
    Commented Oct 29, 2015 at 14:34
  • $\begingroup$ The initial section on formative assessment also seems completely off-topic to me. Isn't the OP describing what is clearly a summative assessment? $\endgroup$
    – user507
    Commented Oct 29, 2015 at 14:36

Without defending this decision too much, I must say that I come from a school with the same policy, and I had a hand in implementing it as a policy. Let me explain why we did it, and provide some of our suggested solutions for parents and students.

We wanted to reduce variability between teachers and improve our assessments overall. So we started to implement common assessments for all teachers. We wrote and revised the tests in teams, allowing input from all teachers. In order to get buy-in from all of the teachers we had to make a couple compromises. Namely, we agreed that teachers would not send tests home while other teachers had not given the test yet. In practice this meant we didn't send tests home as it was difficult to tell if every teacher had finished with a test or not. Overall this did meet the goals we had, it improved the quality of assessments and reduced variability.

The first suggestion I would give is very situational. At our school we encouraged teachers to give assessments back before the midterm and final if they hadn't yet. Find out if there is some kind of embargo period, and maybe you can get the test back later.

The next suggestion is to get involved personally. We frequently gave tests back to parents after explaining our concerns about sharing the test with other students. We felt that once parents were familiar with the idea that their kid would be found cheating if another student got the test from them, they would be sufficiently careful with the test.

Another suggestion would be to see if the teacher has some time to work with the student on the test. We would frequently have students after school to detail the issues with their test and go over problems with them.

  • $\begingroup$ Any chance that there is some available quantification of the statements in the last sentence of the second paragraph? $\endgroup$
    – copper.hat
    Commented Oct 26, 2015 at 15:12
  • $\begingroup$ Only our internal tracking. $\endgroup$
    – BBS
    Commented Oct 26, 2015 at 15:15
  • $\begingroup$ Bummer, that would be very interesting data. $\endgroup$
    – copper.hat
    Commented Oct 26, 2015 at 15:16
  • $\begingroup$ @BBS It sounds like your school schedule does not allow synchronised mid-year or end of year exams for critical summative assessment. Would this be the case in most US schools? $\endgroup$
    – Richard
    Commented Oct 26, 2015 at 16:32
  • $\begingroup$ @Richard it required synchronized end of year exams, and didn't exactly prevent it at other times. During the regular school year there would be frequent assemblies, half-days, snow days, and other events that made it difficult for multiple periods to stay in alignment even when taught by the same teacher. When you factor that into 5-8 different teachers, it makes holding exams at the same time very difficult. I think that's typical in the US. $\endgroup$
    – BBS
    Commented Oct 26, 2015 at 17:43

As Richard pointed out, it may be helpful to understand the difference between formative and summative assessment. Here's a good link if you're not familiar with the terms.

Your question suggests the following proposition: Students should receive their summative assessments (i.e. tests) back so that they can learn from them in the same way they learn from their formative assessments (i.e. quizzes, homework, teacher observations, etc).

According to the learning model suggested by formative and summative assessment, this statement can be analyzed in two cases:

1) The students do not receive formative assessment on a regular basis.

Possible problem: If this is the case, then students are likely to become frustrated, since they may not understand where and how their mistakes happen and as a result may not do well in summative assessments. However, the fundamental problem may not be that students don't get to keep their summative assessments, but rather that their formative assessments are lousy. Perhaps the teacher doesn't return homework promptly, or she gives sparse feedback in class, or he never provides quizzes or practice questions.

Possible solution: By encouraging the teacher to improve his or her formative assessment (or providing it yourself since you seem like an awesome dad), your children may have more confidence going into summative assessments, and if they do get seriously tripped up on questions, then hopefully the teacher is reasonable enough to let them look at the assessment outside of class time and help them understand their mistakes a little better.

2) The students do receive formative assessment on a regular basis.

Comment: If this is the case, there (theoretically) isn't a problem with the teacher keeping the summative assessments. As others have pointed out, there are a lot of reasons why teachers might want to keep formative assessments after allowing students to peek at them. As a teacher required to collect and keep departmental-wide tests, I've found that there have been times when it has been helpful to look back and analyze old tests as a way to inform my instruction. And students are always welcome to visit me outside of class, see any of their old tests, and ask questions. I probably wouldn't keep the tests if the decision was up to me, but I understand the department's decision.

  • $\begingroup$ Thanks David. I would be happy with formative tests being returned. $\endgroup$
    – copper.hat
    Commented Oct 28, 2015 at 4:20

Any teacher will tell you if a student doesn't understand his mistakes, all he has practiced is making that mistake. Clearly that is not the goal of the classroom. However changing the policy of not sending home tests is a losing battle in my opinion. What follows is my own experiences as a teacher and some suggestions of what you can fight for in the classroom to correct the situation.

When I taught we gave "book tests" and were not allowed to send them home, because the tests were reused every year. This was in elementary school and many teachers were not math specialists and it wasn't realistic to expect them to make up tests. Since I was the "math person" if an alternate test was needed, I was called up to make it.

In my classroom, the test is returned with only x's and checks. Students were expected to figure out and correct their errors. If they needed support then hints were given. In that case students often had additional work to do to practice what they got wrong.

I would like to suggest using this model as an alternative to challenging the system of not sending tests home. Sending tests home is likely a department decision that allows all teachers to use the book's test.

Ask the school for the following

  • Can your children correct their test mistakes before being told what they did wrong?

  • Can the students/you have a list of the kinds of mistakes they made? (e.g. arithmetic, didn't follow instructions, didn't know law of sines etc.)

  • Can the students be given additional practice work in the areas that they had the most trouble with.

By approaching things this way, you are not challenging the system of using the book tests, but instead you are focused on having your children learn from their mistakes. Good luck!

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    $\begingroup$ Not being a US school teacher myself, can you explain what book tests are? Are they used for practice or for final grades? How many times a year are they used? We have end of chapter questions in our books that are only used for practice - and the teachers would be thrilled if the students would "cheat" by practicing it at home! Textbooks here are available on the open market - so could never be used for summative assessment. Primary schools usually contract out for summative computer-based assessment material. $\endgroup$
    – Richard
    Commented Oct 26, 2015 at 14:16
  • $\begingroup$ In the US teacher editions often come with additional tests beyond what is in the student edition. Because enough teachers use them, the answers to them are still readily available online. They should not be used for summative assessment, but they are in some schools. $\endgroup$
    – BBS
    Commented Oct 26, 2015 at 14:30
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    $\begingroup$ @Richard "Book tests" are tests that come with the teacher editions only. They are made by the publisher and occur after each chapter and unit. There are also pretests and end of year tests. Since the students don't have them they are used for final grades. The exception are the pretests which are helpful in deciding what to teach. $\endgroup$
    – Amy B
    Commented Oct 26, 2015 at 14:53
  • $\begingroup$ @BBS I haven't seen the tests from our publisher online (perhaps because we update regularly). $\endgroup$
    – Amy B
    Commented Oct 26, 2015 at 14:53
  • $\begingroup$ @AmyB I apologize, I was being judgmental. I have limited experience with using them for assessments. $\endgroup$
    – BBS
    Commented Oct 26, 2015 at 15:09

Sorry I don't have links to specific research that you would like (mweiss' comment above seems a likely reason). My kids had the exact same issue, but it was easily resolved.

Reason not returned - need to keep for record keeping. Solution - photocopy

A rationale as to why exams should always be returned if asked for has two cases. Exams are either formative or summative.

Formative: exams must be returned so students can see what they did wrong and improve. I can't understand the point of a formative assessment that is not returned.

Summative: Students have the right to ask for an exam to be remarked in case of mistakes (maybe not in US?). Every exam leading to a qualification in high school or university was returned to me. All previous years' exams were available for photocopying, published in affordable revision books, and are now available for free download.

Availability of exams is also considered an incentive for students to do more study of exam style questions. This levels the playing field as otherwise students who (by whatever means) gain access to banks of exam questions have an exam advantage.

I used to think that "teaching to the exam" undermined pure education, but I am now firmly of the opinion that having some time to devoted to understanding likely exam questions reduces the impact of variables unrelated to maths knowledge and therefore makes exams much more reliable indicators of domain learning. I specifically remember one of my university lecturers writing some previous exam questions on the board - and strongly hinting that there would be identical questions on this year's exam. He wanted students who could learn how to do those proofs and problems to pass - not to fail because they couldn't guess what they were supposed to study.

Problems for teachers: how to get new exam questions for summative assessment? In national high school exams and universities, there should be the budget to pay people to create new exam questions each year. For internal exams, most teachers here belong to a Maths teachers' association, which provides exam questions to participating high schools each year for internal exams. A few hundred teachers can easily create an exam each year to be shared by all their schools.

If you don't have a national exam and the teachers can't cooperate to create an exam - I can see that there could be problems for the teachers. But even by yourself - there are massive banks of questions available on the internet that you can copy and paste into an exam. Daniel R. Collins mentioned Pearson Testgen. Set aside a few teacher only days each year with teachers at the same school to copy paste the exams. If you have too many summative assessments to make that a viable option - consider whether you are over assessing.

There may be other factors that I haven't thought of, but I really can't think of good reasons not to hand back exams.

EDIT: Looking a BBS's answer, some schools have trouble synchronising the use of summative assessments, to the extent that even an embargo does not work. In this case it would indeed be impossible to give the test back, though this would also seem to cause problems in allowing students to ever see their exams, even during class, unless strict exam conditions were maintained in those revision classes.

  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for your reasoned input. $\endgroup$
    – copper.hat
    Commented Oct 26, 2015 at 15:08
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    $\begingroup$ There are two issues: (1) whether students should be able to see their graded exams, and (2) whether students should be able to take home their graded exams. The question asks about #2. The justifications given in the answer only support #1. $\endgroup$
    – user507
    Commented Oct 26, 2015 at 15:39
  • $\begingroup$ @BenCrowell Please read my answer, as I thought I was clear. First, a student has the right to carefully examine the marking and ask for a remark of a summative assessment. That can not possibly be done during a brief look in class. Second, no student that I know of has much memory of a formative test that they only see briefly during class. They usually remember the cumulative grade only. For them to be able to use this for further study, they need to have it as a reference. I am of course assuming that the kids are old enough to study i.e.. the ages listed in the OP. $\endgroup$
    – Richard
    Commented Oct 26, 2015 at 16:03
  • $\begingroup$ @BenCrowell Could you explain what you think the benefits of your #1 vs #2 to be, and what age group you are considering. $\endgroup$
    – Richard
    Commented Oct 26, 2015 at 16:07

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