Can multiple-choice exams prove what a student really knows?
by Elaine Gallagher, PhD Can multiple-choice exams prove what a student really knows? In short, the answer is “NO”! No one knows for certain if […]
Can multiple-choice exams prove what a student really knows? In short, the answer is “NO”!
No one knows for certain if a correct choice was made because the student actually KNEW the answer, or if he/she simply GUESSED the correct answer.
If students are lucky in Las Vegas, they may be able to do well on multiple-choice exams without having had to know anything. Or an “unlucky” student, could know a lot of material, and orally or in essay format be able to explain the lesson well, but give him/her a multiple-choice exam, and the brain freezes. To this student, every choice looks right or wrong, so the student, frustrated, guesses…usually choosing incorrectly because the student isn’t lucky in Las Vegas.
Effort vs. Ability
What explains success in school?
To this question American parents overwhelmingly respond, “Ability.” Our own school experience makes clear that if you are smart, you get A’s and B’s, or 9’s and 10’s. But if you are not smart, you get C’s and D’s or 6’s and 7’s.
We all “know” that not everyone can be “smart.”
When Asian or Finnish parents, however, are asked the same question, “What explains success in school?”, they usually respond with, “Effort.”
Studies from University of Pittsburgh’s Lauren Resnick support that “effort leads to ability.” The harder you work, the closer you come to meeting the standards. Effort itself is not rewarded directly—only results count—but research has shown that effort always leads to student improvement. In this way, the higher standards movement greatly strengthens the classroom work ethic.
Interesting to note: When I was much younger, during the late 1940’s and the 1950’s, our school (Saint Patrick School. Portsmouth, New Hampshire) gave monthly report cards with a mark for “Effort” and one for “Comportment”. All of the academic subjects also were marked, but my parents emphasized EFFORT and COMPORTMENT. Frankly, I didn’t do that well in either one, often getting a “C”, which was the equivalent of “Average”. I talked too much, and I finished my work too quickly, without taking time to recheck things. Yet, my academic grades were always A’s and B’s. Eventually, I developed a strong work ethic because my parents, as well as my school, emphasized EFFORT and good behavior.
In those days, at least in my school, we never had multiple-choice exams. Our teachers said those kinds of exams were “for lazy teachers”. Every test we had was oral, or essay/short answers style, or calculations in mathematics. This was the norm, all through school’s twelve years, we never were tested by multiple-choice exams.
At university, however, I was in for a shock! Classes had 300 students, not 30, meeting in auditoriums, all multiple-choice exams. I practically flunked out, in fact, I was on academic probation, the step before flunking out….but a miracle saved me!
In geology class, the day of 100-question multiple-choice exam, the mimeograph machine had broken, so the professor announced he was giving us five essay questions, to answer as completely as possible, showing what we knew.
I wrote until the exam’s blue book was full, explaining to Dr. Wheeler all I knew about the geology aspects he was assessing.
Surprise! I received a 92 on the exam! I went to Dr. Wheeler, exam in hand, telling him that I really DO know what he’s teaching and what’s in the text book.
He said to me, “Obviously you can’t do well on multiple-choice exams, because you think too deeply. With 300 students in this class and several other classes, I can’t give essays all the time. My advice is to change to a history major because classes are small. The prof may be boring, but the exams are essays.
I followed his advice, and was able to graduate from the University of New Hampshire with a major in history. I went on for a master’s degree and a doctorate, but I avoided all courses that tested by multiple choice.
Eventually, I taught myself how to “pass” a multiple-choice exam.
I discovered a way that worked for me …but nonetheless, multiple-choice tests do not and cannot relate to what a student actually knows.
Standards-based classrooms focus on student performance.
How did you win merit badges in Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts? You didn’t take multiple-choice tests. You practiced with the rope, and then you tied the knot in front of your Scout leader.
How do you get a job in photography? Once again, you don’t take a multiple-choice job test. You bring your portfolio of photographs with you to the job interview, and you show your prospective employer what you can do with a camera. It’s performance that counts in the real world. Standards-based school reform, our classrooms will be organized around performance and student portfolios that collect student work.
How do you prove you know a language? By speaking it.
Oral fluency is the key to being able to read and write creatively. If you can speak a language, you can read and write it. Sadly, most language “exams” are multiple-choice.
Why? Because they are easy to correct. In my opinion, that is the ONLY positive statement that can be made about multiple-choice exams. Since most educators know this, why do we still give multiple-choice exams?
There are two answers:
(1) They are quick & easy to score.
(2) No one has come up with testing format to give oral exams that are quick and
easy to score.
Open-Ended vs. Multiple-Choice Examinations
Standards-based exams are open-ended, rather than multiple-choice, and they are characteristically of a problem-solving nature, requiring critical thinking, not memorized facts.
Multiple-choice exams cannot get at problem-solving abilities as well as open-ended exams, but they are cheap, and easily scored. By contrast, the open-ended, New Standards Reference exams are expensive because the tests must measure the abilities students will require for success in an economy of rapid change. This economy is ill-served by workers only adept at rote memorization.
Abilities now needed in society of the 21st Century hinge on the essential skills of oral fluency, critical thinking and problem-solving. In standards-based learning, it’s not enough to recall mathematical formulae—students must also be able to use these formulae to solve problems, so that’s what should be assessed.
How high should school standards be set?
Our standards should be internationally benchmarked—that is, we should be asking our students to perform at the same levels as their counterparts in the rest of the developed world.
It’s time to define the height of the mountain. We don’t have to get our students to the top,—but, in a technologically-driven global economy, our children have to be able to perform at the same level as their competition. If American workers are to receive high wages and obtain jobs in HVA industries, (high-valued-added), they must be able to meet the same educational standards required of students in our competitor nations.
The Floor and the Ceiling
In standards pedagogy, the “standard” represents the floor, and all students are expected to perform at this level. Effort sustained over a long enough period of time will make it possible for all students to meet the standard.
The ceiling is as high as individual students can reach through a combination of effort and ability. Unless you believe that American students are inherently less able than students in Western European and Pacific Rim nations, then you have to conclude that American students can perform at much higher levels. Polls of our own students reveal their belief that we ask too little of them.
Eliminating multiple-choice exams, replacing them with performance-based tests, oral and written, (not memorized), using critical thinking, and organizing students’ portfolios to exemplify their best work, are the methods we need to employ, or our students will not be challenged. All of these assessment tools must be based on international standards, so we’ll challenge our students and inspire them to make EFFORT, thus raising their abilities.
Raising standards doesn’t mean that students complete MORE work, or have 2 or 3 hours of homework. Absolutely NO! Raising standards is based on the depth and complexity of the work taught and studied by students. We are speaking here of QUALITY, not of quantity.
In language learning, the CEFR, (Common European Framework of Reference to Language Learning), serves as an international benchmark. Students no longer should get an A or B or a 9 or 10 in English or other languages. Now we need to base their performance on the CEFR scale, placing them at levels A-1, or A-2, B-1, B-2, C-1, C-2, observing abilities in the four basic skills of listening, speaking, reading, and writing in order to assess their levels.
The CEFR levels (A-1 is the most basic) are observable and identify each student’s level. With EFFORT and time, most people can get to the B-2 level, a minimum level of fluency and independence in a second or third language. In our native language, adults should be at a C-2.
In closure, the world is moving away from multiple-choice exams because even though they are quickly corrected, they cannot measure adequately what a student actually knows, or can exhibit, or can discuss. The 21st Century is seeing us moving slowly, but surely, towards performance standards. If you are a teacher, prepare yourself to use assessment methods that allow the student to exhibit what he/she knows. Use rubrics, for example, as a basic standard to guide and score some assignments.
Creative assessments include: writing an original poem, speaking in front of the class, writing an essay, solving mathematical word problems, teaching a lesson to the class, inventing a puzzle or a math problem, and publishing a current events magazine.
We began this article with the question, “Can Multiple-Choice Exams Prove What A Student Really Knows?”
Now you know the answer.