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Multiple-Choice Tests (page 3)

— National Center for Fair and Open Testing
Updated on Jul 26, 2007

Informing instruction

Even with carefully written distractors, as in the "night and day" example, it is often hard to know why a student got a question wrong or right. But unless a teacher has that information, the test result is not useful for improving instruction for the individual.

A standardized multiple-choice test may point to some broad areas that need improvement. For example, a test may show that students in a school or district need to improve on double-digit multiplication. However, the tests do not provide information that will help teachers do a better job of teaching double-digit multiplication because they do not show why the class generally did not do well.

If students were asked to explain how they got their answers, then their teachers would have a lot more information. This information is vital for teachers to make instruction more effective. For example, students who did not know why "the earth spins on its axis" is the correct answer to "night and day" but happened to guess the correct answer would be unable to explain why. Their mistaken views would be visible to the teacher, who could then address the misunderstanding and clarify the concept.

Dangers of relying on multiple-choice tests.

Relying on multiple-choice tests as a primary method of assessment is educationally dangerous for many reasons:

1) Because of cultural assumptions and biases, the tests may be inaccurate. (Of course, other kinds of assessments also can be biased.) Assuming the test is accurate because of its supposedly "objective" format may lead to making bad decisions about how best to teach a student.

2) Students may recognize or know facts or procedures well enough to score high on the test, but not be able to think about the subject or apply knowledge, even though being able to think and apply is essential to "knowing" any subject. Therefore, the conclusion or inference that a student "knows" history or science because she got a high score on a multiple-choice test may be false.

3) What is easily measurable may not be as important as what is not measurable or is more difficult to measure. A major danger with high stakes multiple-choice and short-answer tests -- tests that have a major impact on curriculum and instruction -- is that only things that are easily measured are taught.

4) Since the questions usually must be answered quickly and have only one correct answer, students learn that problems for which a single answer cannot be chosen quickly are not important.

5) When schools view multiple-choice tests as important, they often narrow their curriculum to cover only what is on the exams. For example, to prepare for multiple-choice tests, curriculum may focus on memorizing definitions and recognizing (naming) concepts. This will not lead students to understand important scientific principles, grasp how science is done, and think about how science affects their lives.

6) When narrow tests define important learning, instruction often gets reduced to "drill and kill" - - lots of practice on questions that look just like the test. In this case, students often get no chance to read real books, to ask their own questions, to have discussions, to challenge texts, to conduct experiments, to write extended papers, to explore new ideas -- that is, to think about and really learn a subject.

Should multiple-choice tests be used at all?

The decision to use multiple-choice tests or include multiple-choice items in a test should be based on what the purpose of the test is and the uses that will be made of its results. If the purpose is only to check on factual and procedural knowledge, if the test will not have a major effect on overall curriculum and instruction, and if conclusions about what students know in a subject will not be reduced to what the test measures, then a multiple-choice test might be somewhat helpful -- provided it is unbiased, well written, and related to the curriculum. If they substantially control curriculum or instruction, or are the basis of major conclusions that are reported to the public (e.g., how well students read or know math), or are used to make important decisions about students, then multiple-choice tests are quite dangerous.

Students should learn to think and apply knowledge. Facts and procedures are necessary for thinking, but schools should not be driven by multiple-choice testing into minimizing or eliminating thinking and problem-solving. Therefore, classroom assessments and standardized tests should not rely more than a small amount on multiple-choice or short-answer items. Instead, other well-designed forms of assessment should be implemented and their used properly. Most importantly, all teachers need to be capable of high quality assessment to help their students learn (see Implementing Performance Assessment from FairTest; $6.00).

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