Multiple Choice Tests: A. Good B. Bad C. Somewhere in Between?

"Number 2 pencils only!"
“Number 2 pencils only!”

The American Association of University Professors has recently published an excellent article from Kenneth Bernstein, a retired high school social studies teacher in the Washington DC area. The article acts as a warning for college professors: your students are coming to college ill-prepared for the rigors of your curricula and much of it has to do with No Child Left Behind and various other provisions that are stifling the creative energies of teachers and failing far too many of your students. Bernstein paints a bleak picture of the k-12 educational landscape and I sense that while he is a passionate teacher–one who has won awards and changed the lives of many students–he is leaving the profession on a sour note, disappointed with the ways in which the system worked against him.

Bernstein makes an interesting point about multiple choice tests in the educational curriculum that I had not thought about before, at least when it came to finances. He argues that high school teachers, especially ones that teach writing-intensive courses like English and History, are placed in quicksand before their students even walk to their lockers for the first day of high school. The point is worth quoting in full:

most of the tests being used [from k-8] consist primarily or solely of multiple-choice items, which are cheaper to develop, administer, and score than are tests that include constructed responses such as essays. Even when a state has tests that include writing, [such as the MAP test in Missouri or the I-STEP test in Indiana] the level of writing required for such tests often does not demand that higher-level thinking be demonstrated, nor does it require proper grammar, usage, syntax, and structure. Thus, students arriving in our high school lacked experience and knowledge about how to do the kinds of writing that are expected at higher levels of education.

Concerns regarding time and money always dominate the minds of a school administration, but these insights from Bernstein are profound. Many students can’t read, write, or think critically about a problem because we don’t test them in a way that would challenge them to think in such a manner. Going beyond Bernstein’s point, I would argue that the same problems plague many high schools as well. Allow me to share a few personal experiences:

When I went to high school (2002-2006), the types of tests I received in my history classes for the vast majority of those years were a blend of multiple choice, true/false, and matching. In fact, I never had to write an essay for a test until my senior year, when I took two college-level courses in Western Civilization and U.S. Foreign Policy. For the first three years of high school, on the day after we took a particular test, my teacher would hand back our completed tests, ungraded. We were then instructed to give our tests to one of our neighbors and to grab a pen or colored pencil. The teacher would then read off the answers and tell us to mark any that were incorrect. We would then look at our results before handing the tests back to the teacher for him to punch into the gradebook. This test format accomplished many goals for the teacher: by creating a test heavily weighted towards multiple choice questions, the test itself was much easier and cheaper to create and print. By having us grade our neighbors’ tests, the teacher saved valuable time that would have gone into grading the tests at home towards other endeavors (perhaps working on the defensive playbook for the football team or devising a way to integrate Phil Jackson’s Triangle offense into the basketball team’s gameplan). Furthermore, having us grade the tests would take anywhere between 10-20 minutes, so that’s one chunk of time that the teacher doesn’t have to worry about when planning for the classroom activities that day.

Fast forward to the Spring Semester of 2011. I am student teaching at a local high school in St. Charles, Missouri. At the beginning of the semester I create a test on the Industrial Revolution, but after several complaints from students eventually go all the way to the Principal’s office, I am notified that from now on I must create my lesson plans around pre-written assessment tests that all Social Studies teachers are using in the school. We’re gonna teach em’ the same, we’re gonna test em’ the same, and in many cases we’re gonna give em’ tests that are at least ten years old (YES!). For example, I can’t teach the Russian Revolution during my unit on the First World War because there are no written test questions about said revolution (which in turn leads to a fragmented understanding of WWI, but I digress).

The test questions are about 90% multiple choice, with the rest either true/false or matching. We now have scantrons (something we didn’t really use when I was in High School), so I just have to go to the scantron machine down the hall and I’m done grading the tests in about five minutes. I see an increased average in test scores throughout the duration of my student teaching experience, but the fact remains that the students are never challenged to think critically, use proper grammar, or make an argument in their assessments.

I tried my best to get the students to think critically by creating my own worksheets with essay questions and engaging in classroom discussions, some of which were very productive and extremely gratifying as a teacher. But I couldn’t help but feel very restricted in terms of what I could do with my lesson plans thanks in large part to the fact that the pre-written tests largely determined the types of questions I could ask and the sorts of topics I’d be able to cover in class.

Now, this is merely my unique and particular experience in an ocean of unique and particular experiences. Others will have had experiences that have greatly varied from mine, for better or worse. Yet I firmly believe that many people my age, some of who are now professional teachers themselves, have had experiences similar to mine. It’s tough for me to blame my high school teachers or any specific school administration for this state of affairs in education because in many cases there were political forces beyond their control that dictated to them, under rule of law, that this was how things were supposed to be done.

I believe multiple choice questions are good measurements of assessment, but I think they work best in conjunction with other forms of assessment that challenge students to think critically. As with my argument about school textbooks, I think multiple choice questions need to play a more complimentary role in the classroom rather than the primary role they frequently receive.

I know that trying to implement more written tests and assignments into the curriculum is going to be tough on teachers. Bernstein says as much:

Imagine that I assign all my students a written exercise. Let’s assume that 160 actually turn it in. Let’s further assume that I am a fast reader, and I can read and correct papers at a rate of one every three minutes. That’s eight hours—for one assignment. If it takes a more realistic five minutes per paper, the total is more than thirteen hours.

Even with this daunting time constraint in mind, I still believe it is imperative to try and get a little more writing and critical thinking into the classroom mix. Even though the cards are stacked against us as teachers, we must make do with what we have and remember who is number one in this educational hierarchy: the students.

To be continued…