One way to improve education: Ban multiple-choice tests

There is a guaranteed way to improve the education system, and it does not entail any of the usual culprits -television, materialism, lousy teachers, indifferent parents, limited resources. Let's ban multiple-choice tests.

During my 30 years of teaching at the college level, I have seen multiple-choice tests become the choice of more and more professors, which is an extension of what predominates in the lower levels. With the current mania for accountability, which often translates into comparability, quantification, and standardization, I suspect that this testing will become even more pervasive.

I've observed that foreign students for whom English is a second language often write better than native-born students. Several such students remarked that they had never taken multiple-choice tests before entering the US education system. Reflecting on my own college experience, I could recall only one multiple-choice exam.

A direct connection exists between the poor writing and thinking skills of many students and the fact that they write little. The minimal emphasis on individual and group problem solving only compounds the problem. Unfortunately, the multiple-choice exam is at the center of what currently passes for education.

For faculty, such tests have many appeals. They are easy to create and mark. Textbook publishers often provide free test banks that can be scored electronically. They are viewed as "objective" by many people and help faculty avoid accusations of being unfair in their grading. For students, the multiple-choice test makes education a game in which they guess the correct answers and compete for scores. As one student recently told me, multiple choice is multiple guesses. From a student perspective, how one does on tests becomes the objective and measure of learning.

Increasingly, schools and faculty are judged by test results; therefore, many faculty, intentionally or unintentionally, end up teaching to the tests. What is particularly counterproductive about the reliance on such tests is that they make education a passive process for the students. Learning, too often, becomes a matter of listening to the teacher, reading for what is on the test - and then picking the correct answer.

Imagine if students had to produce - write, design, build, photograph. Imagine if what they produced was taken with them as they proceeded through the educational system. Imagine if what they produced was viewed as expressing or reflecting who they were and what they know. Perhaps students would come to value their opinions and skills and experience education as more than a chore or process.

I know such tests will not be eliminated. If they were, however, we might break free of the accusations that pass for educational debate and that avoid dealing with what really goes on in classrooms. Valuing students and their work, making them accountable for it, and having it become part of their identity - instead of focusing on grades and tests - might revitalize teaching and learning in a profound way. Banning multiple-choice tests seems to me a good place to start.

*After 30 years of teaching anthropology and sociology in the US, Michael J. Intintoli will soon be living and writing in Guanajuato, Mexico.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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