Multiple choice tests: A) Great, B) Terrible or C) Pretty useful when done right

 Critics
of “bubble tests” rejoice! The campaign against the use of multiple choice
questions in state tests may finally be turning the tide. But, on the eve of
this victory, it’s worth pausing to ask: is this actually a good thing for
those of us who care about smart, efficient, and effective accountability
systems?

Details continue to trickle in about the PARCC
and SMARTER Balanced assessment consortia plans for their summative ELA and
math assessments. Catherine Gewertz has dug into the RFPs for both consortia
and shared some of her findings in an article published in Education Week yesterday. There’s a lot of
interesting information, including the fact that both consortia appear to be
moving away from multiple choice questions in their test designs. Gewertz
explains:

Documents
issued by the two groups of states that are designing the tests show that they
seek to harness the power of computers in new ways and assess skills that
multiple-choice tests cannot…

While the plans offer few details about how
the new items will differ, or why it’s necessary to abandon multiple choice
questions entirely, people across the education world will no doubt celebrate
the demise of the multiple choice question.

Multiple choice items are, after all, the
assessment items everyone loves to hate. Critics on all sides of the education
debate deride “bubble tests” as the enemy of genuine learning and believe that
our reliance on assessments that use multiple choice questions has forced
teachers to “teach to the test” rather than focusing on helping students
achieve deep conceptual understanding of critical content and 21st century
skills.

But, perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to
relegate multiple choice questions to the dustbin of assessment history? After
all, when carefully crafted, these questions can be useful, reliable, and
cost-effective ways to gather information about student learning. And because
they can be scored quickly, information from multiple choice questions can be
used almost immediately to drive whole class and small group instruction and
individual tutoring.

Unfortunately, “bubble tests” have become the
scapegoat for everything that’s wrong with assessments today. In particular,
people tend to criticize two things.

First, some multiple choice questions are just
poorly written. Too many questions assess only low-level content that requires
little more than rote memorization of basic skills, rather than higher-level
application or conceptual understanding.

Second, analysis of the data from multiple
choice questions too often begins and ends with whether the student got the
question right or wrong. But, such superficial analysis ignores the most useful
information that can be gleaned from multiple choice questions. Specifically,
careful analysis of the “distractors”—the purposefully chosen wrong answers—can
help the teacher understand where student understanding is breaking down.

Take, for example, the following 10th grade
math question:

What is the median of the data set below?
30,  37,  19,  42,  33,  37
A. 31             C. 35
B. 33             D. 37

This is a basic question that assesses student
mastery of core math skills. But, analysis of the distracters can help teachers
identify where student understanding is breaking down. For example, a student
selecting answer B has most likely confused mean with median—information that a
teacher can use to target individual tutoring or instruction right away. But,
more than that, would an open-ended question give teachers more or better
information about student mastery of this basic skill? Not necessarily.

Of course, it’s also possible to write
questions that assess far more than basic skills. Carefully crafted multiple
choice questions can demand application of essential content and skills and can
push student thinking. And the data can be equally useful in driving
instruction and tutoring.

What’s more, multiple choice questions are
generally more efficient than open-ended questions. Scoring them is quick,
easy, and cost-effective. And there is very little scoring bias: when properly
constructed there are clear right and wrong answers to each question.
(Open-ended questions, by contrast, can be scored differently by different
people, which often leads to either variations in student scores, or an
overreliance on simplistic rubrics that do not give the full picture of student
understanding of essential content and skills.)

Of course, with multiple choice items, like
all assessment items, their effectiveness depends on how well they are
developed and how effectively they are put to use as part of an overall assessment
and instructional strategy. And, while assessments should never rely
exclusively on multiple choice questions, to avoid them entirely because they
may have been abused in the past seems misguided.

So, as PARCC and SMARTER Balanced look to
develop the assessments of the future, perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to
abandon something that, when paired with innovative new question types, might
be the most effective and efficient way to gauge student learning of essential
content and skills.

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