Multiple-Choice Tests (page 2)
A multiple-choice test usually has dozens of questions or "items." For
each question, the test- taker is supposed to select the "best"
choice among a set of four or five options. (They are sometime called
"selected-response tests.") For example:
What causes night and day?
A. The earth spins on its axis.
B. The earth moves around the sun.
C. Clouds block out the sun's light.
D. The earth moves into and out of the sun's shadow.
E. The sun goes around the earth.
(Source: P. M. Sadler, "Psychometric Models of Student Conceptions in Science," Journal of Research in Science Teaching (1998. V. 35, N. 3, pp. 265-296).)
The "wanted" answer is "A." The other answer options are called "distractors."
Most standardized tests, including state exams and most commercial achievement tests, are made up primarily of multiple-choice items. A few state tests have a quarter, a half or even more "open-ended" (or "constructed-response") items, usually short answer questions. These ask a student to write and perhaps explain, not just select, an answer. Many short-answer questions are not much more than multiple-choice items without the answer options, and they share many of the limits and problems of multiple-choice items.
Are multiple-choice tests "objective"?
Test-makers often promote multiple-choice tests as "objective." This is
because there is no human judgement in the scoring, which usually is done
by machine. However, humans decide what questions to ask, how to phrase
questions, and what "distractors" to use. All these are subjective
decisions that can be biased in ways that unfairly reward or harm some
test-takers. Therefore, multiple-choice tests are not really objective.
Any uses of test results involve additional human decisions, including such things as setting a "cut-off" or passing-level score on a test. Some people also claim multiple-choice tests avoid the subjective views of any one teacher, who may be biased or have low expectations. This is true, but there are many ways to address these problems, such as by having independent groups of teachers and others review student essays, projects, portfolios or other more comprehensive forms of assessment.
What can multiple-choice items be used for?
Multiple-choice items are best used for checking whether students have
learned facts and routine procedures that have one, clearly correct answer.
However, an item may have two reasonable answer options. Therefore, test
directions usually ask test takers to select the "best" answer. If, on a
reading test, a student selected a somewhat plausible answer, does it mean
that she cannot read, or that she does not see things exactly the way the
In some subjects, carefully written multiple-choice items with good distractors can fairly accurately distinguish students who grasp a basic concept from those who do not. Look again at the "night and day" question. Those who don't quite get it often are attracted by answer B. Those who have little or no knowledge usually select C, D or E.
Multiple-choice and critical thinking
It is possible to get multiple-choice items correct without knowing much
or doing any real thinking. Because the answers are in front of the
student, some people call these tests "multiple- guess." Multiple-choice
items can be easier than open-ended questions asking the same thing. This
is because it is harder to recall an answer than to recognize it. Test-wise
students know that it is sometimes easier to work backwards from the answer
options, looking for the one that best fits. It also is possible to choose
the "right" answer for the wrong reason or to simply make a lucky
Some people claim that multiple-choice tests can be useful for measuring whether students can analyze material. This item was released by test publishers as an example of how multiple-choice items supposedly measure "thinking" skills:
Was the infantry invasion of Japan a viable alternative to the use of the
atomic bomb to end World War II? Is so, why? If not, why not?
A. Yes; transport ships were available in sufficient numbers.
B. Yes; island defenses in Japan were minimal.
C. No; estimated casualties would have been much greater.*
D. No; Japan was on the verge of having an atomic bomb.
* Wanted answer.
(From Measuring Thinking in the Classroom, Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory, 1988, Oak Park, IL.)
Claiming there is one right answer to this complex historical issue
actually demonstrates how this sort of question short-circuits the thinking
process it claims to measure. Since "C" is the explanation given in most
high-school texts for using the bomb, choosing the wanted answer would be a
matter of recall for many students. For students who did not recall the
textbook response, no information is provided to actually analyze the
question and come up with the wanted answer. Beyond that, there remains an
intense debate among historians about the justification for the use of the
atomic bomb. Thus, what is treated as "true" may not be. A question really
asking for critical thinking would have students weigh evidence and defend
Most researchers agree that multiple-choice items are poor tools for measuring the ability to synthesize and evaluate information or apply knowledge to complex problems. In math, for example, they can measure knowledge of basic facts and the ability to apply standard procedures and rules. Carefully written multiple-choice questions also can measure somewhat more complex mathematical knowledge such as integrating information or deciding which mathematical procedures to use to solve problems. However, as students move toward solving non-routine problems, analyzing, interpreting, and making mathematical arguments, multiple-choice questions are not useful.
In sum, multiple-choice items are an inexpensive and efficient way to check on factual ("declarative") knowledge and routine procedures. However, they are not useful for assessing critical or higher order thinking in a subject, the ability to write, or the ability to apply knowledge or solve problems.
Reprinted with the permission of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing.