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Thoughts on the New S.A.T.: It’s the Way Out of Our Multiple-Choice Mentality

By Martin B. Solomon — January 30, 1991 6 min read
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Some critics say that the recently announced plans to revamp the Scholastic Aptitude Test are too modest. I believe, on the contrary, that the inclusion in 1994 of a written essay section, non-multiple-choice questions in mathematics, and more emphasis on critical reading represents “a giant leap for mankind.”

Here is why.

About 30 or so years ago, the world of education at most levels began relying heavily, and in some cases exclusively, on multiple-choice testing. That movement signaled the decline of quality education, because it changed the way teaching and learning were performed.

Prior to the multiple-choice era, students were asked to read materials and were then asked to explain, compare, contrast, and tell why. Not much of that is done today. The reason is simple: Essay testing requires too much teacher time to grade.

Teachers in K-12 and professors in postsecondary education have become dispensers of data rather than facilitators of learning. Today, at most levels (with the exception of graduate and professional postsecondary education), data are spit out in the students’ direction and then the students are asked to regurgitate the data. Notice, they regurgitate the data, not information.

Data can be thought of as raw facts--When did Christopher Columbus discover America? What is the square root of 145? What are the first three lines of the Gettysburg Address?

But information and understanding are so different from data regurgitation; somehow we lost sight of that. For 30 years we have been handicapping our young people and it shows. In virtually every study that compares American students with those of other Western countries, American kids fall far short. I submit that a major part of the reason why is that we have moved too heavily to multiple-choice testing to save the teacher and the professor time.

Multiple-choice testing generates a different, stunted, and anti-intellectual approach to teaching and learning. When one constructs a multiple-choice test, one cannot ask the obvious--else, all students get perfect scores. So teachers turn to asking peripheral questions with borderline differences between shades of meaning to ensure a reasonable distribution of grades. But the basics are lost in the process. Only the brightest students really learn the fundamentals--and they probably do that largely on their own.

The form of testing is critical to the learning process. If you don’t believe that, just tell your students that no tests will be given--only attendance will determine the grade--and see how much learning (or studying) takes place. Zip.

If you tell them that your tests will consist of multiple-choice questions, many (most?) will not study for comprehensive understanding; rather, they will try to be able to regurgitate bits and pieces of data. Worse, too many students will not gain aptitude in trying to organize or express thoughts clearly.

On the other hand, simply tell a class you will ask essay questions and they will be forced to expect almost anything; they will study in a very different way. They may not like it, but they will study in a very different way.

Charles Sykes, in his recent book Profscam, claims that higher education has turned its back on undergraduate education and is full of overpaid, underworked professors. He is concerned about the inadequate state of affairs in postsecondary education in this country. Our college graduates cannot read, write, or compute as well as they should. And this, I submit, is also affected by multiple-choice testing.

Things have changed dramatically since I was an undergraduate. Learning was more fun then. People not only talked with one another, they debated, discussed, and, yes, emoted over intellectual matters. This doesn’t seem to happen in an objective testing environment. (One has to ask, was the bland 1988 Presi4dential campaign perhaps a byproduct of 30 years of a different system of testing in education?)

One fundamental principle must become the centerpiece of American education at all levels if we are to regain any degree of competence and competitiveness: A thought unexpressed is incomplete.

Youngsters must be forced to express themselves, in free-form, essay mode, for a whole variety of reasons.

First, they need to learn for themselves if complete understanding has occurred. When they find out that voids exist, they will then know that there is an urgent need to learn more--to understand.

Thus, when a youngster is asked, Why did Christopher Columbus come to America? the question becomes a many-faceted experience. Maybe, for the first time, he or she will be forced to synthesize an answer.

But just as important is the need to practice written self-expression. Too few youngsters have too few opportunities to express themselves on paper. The multiple-choice test robs them of that wonderful experience. Like any skill, it takes practice, practice, practice. Whether you want to excel at tennis, golf, basketball, or writing, it is all the same. Practice, practice, practice.

When I taught business statistics to college juniors, I always gave essay tests. Questions such as, What is the meaning of a standard deviation? provide a wealth of fertile turf for discussion, elaboration, and, most of all, true understanding. To ask a student just to compute a standard deviation is not useful because after obtaining the answer, he or she may have no notion of its meaning or significance.

We ask students in trigonometry to compute the tangent of an angle. And while many can do that, far fewer ever understand this vitally important concept of science.

The concept of a tangent is profound. It represents the rate of change. What could be more fundamental to such fields as physics, economics, or engineering? But yet, most students learn that a tangent is a number gotten by dividing one value by another value, with little (or no) appreciation for its monumental meaning.

So many youngsters abhor mathematics and fear any involvement in it because they have learned simply to plug numbers into formulae. Without understanding the elegant concepts behind those formulae, they cannot appreciate the associated beauty and excitement; they become utterly confused and frustrated, and they want no more of it.

So it is the Why questions and the practice in written expression that must be reinfused into our schools.

The exciting thing about the College Board’s decision to include essay questions in the sat of the future is that it might force teachers to realize that the multiple-choice mentality is ruining our students. And, since teachers and schools are now “graded” in 22 states on average SAT scores, the administrations of those states will be forced the change with the times.

Not only can this result in changes in those 22 states, but in all states as well. Good scores seem to be the standard that differentiates almost all schools today; to encourage teachers to spend the time necessary to grade essay exams, rather than rely on multiple-choice questioning, is a welcome omen.

But listen up, school administrators. You will need to take some of the administrative work from teachers. They will need less paperwork, fewer traffic duties, fewer cheerleading duties, and the like if they are to perform this important function.

I truly hope that the new SAT means the American educational system will soon be on a roll again.

A version of this article appeared in the January 30, 1991 edition of Education Week as Thoughts on the New S.A.T.: It’s the Way Out of Our Multiple-Choice Mentality

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