… and the test results are in. Utah high school students just received the results of a new test that measures achievement in language, mathematics, and science… and on average, less than half the students met the standards in any of the test areas. Two things about the new test were especially interesting, first that the standards and what was being measured didn’t change and, second, that half of the new test required answers from the student – no guessing from choices provided. While there were schools whose overall student mastery levels reached or exceeded 90% mastery, there were also schools where the mastery levels averaged in the 10%-20% range.
What to me is so obvious, but what has been overlooked for years by both parents and educational bureaucrats, is that multiple choice tests don’t accurately show student subject mastery – they’re far more likely to reward speed readers with moderate subject mastery and great test-taking ability. And multiple choice testing certainly doesn’t measure the ability to reason out a mathematical concept or to write an accurate and grammatically correct paragraph.Those students who excel at multiple-choice testing are generally those who (1) have learned the material and can regurgitate or recall it quickly; (2) those able to read and process the questions quickly, (3) those with a comprehensive understanding of common and standard language and society, and (4) those with higher levels of self-discipline. Not surprisingly, those abilities tend to be associated with families with higher incomes and with students from more demanding schools [most of which are either schools in high income areas or charter schools with extraordinarily dedicated and highly professional staff, as well as generally better resources. There are exceptions, of course, but exceptions, as the saying goes, often prove the rule.
The other long-standing problem with multiple choice tests is that they provide an unrealistic view of the choices in life outside and after schooling. Sometimes, usually very infrequently, life presents you with clear and multiple choices. Most of the time, your choices either aren’t obvious, tend to be between less obnoxious alternatives, or you don’t have a real choice at all. Even when choices seem obvious, they often aren’t, because the most appealing one in the short run may turn into a long-range disaster.
The “advantages” to multiple-choice tests are that (1) they’re theoretically more objective, since whether one adequately written paragraph is better than another can result in subjective grading; (2) theytake far fewer resources and are far easier to grade; (3) they allow theoretically more objective comparisons of teachers, schools, and school systems [except most really don’t measure how much a given teacher has improved the skills of a particular student or set of students].
The fact that Utah test scores dropped drastically across the board when open-ended questions were added underscores dramatically just how limited multiple choice tests are – as almost any veteran classroom teacher can explain.
But then, since multiple choice tests are graded on the immediate answer, and we have two generations in a row raised on multiple choice tests, is it any wonder that we’ve become a society dominated by instant gratification and superficial knowledge, with a continuing decline in true critical thinking?