Assessment Opinion

A Moratorium on Multiple Choice?

By Cristina Duncan Evans — October 01, 2014 3 min read
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I’ve begun to think that multiple-choice tests are increasingly irrelevant in my classroom. This year, the things I’m most excited about in my history class are document-based auestions, Socratic seminars, conducting oral histories, and National History Day. It’s been exciting to embrace a thematic organization of U.S. history content.

The level of student engagement has been incredible, and my students are creating deep, thoughtful work. Multiple-choice tests just don’t seem to fit into what we’re doing. Units in my U.S. history class follow a careful cycle where reading, speaking, writing, peer-review, and re-writing build upon one another. When it works well, it’s beautiful. How does a multiple choice question adequately capture my students’ learning, or prepare them for future endeavors in history? I’m not sure it does.

I’m considering giving up traditional multiple-choice tests for this course altogether.

I’d replace them with my current assessments of project-based learning and Socratic seminars. I’d also replace them by giving more reading quizzes, which are relatively low-stress and open book. (Strangely, an open-book reading quiz has roughly the same bell curve of grades as a multiple-choice unit test. The multiple-choice test provokes much more stress in students, for roughly the same result. The quiz is also much easier to grade.)

Over time, I’ve seen what my students retain long-term, and it’s rarely the type of information that shows up on my multiple- choice tests. U.S. history, like other subject areas, involves a lot of complex stuff—you have to understand a complex chain of events, be able to analyze and debate primary sources, and you need to contextualize sources and read them closely. When I give a multiple-choice test, I can get a baseline for what my students retained from a reading or lecture, but that test doesn’t develop deep learning or skills that they can apply throughout their lives.

If you are getting worried that I’m becoming an anti-testing zealot, don’t—I’m not about to go too far to the extreme. In fact, my other class, American government, is assessed by a standardized test that’s a graduation requirement. It’s a critical part of my job to prepare students for that test, and I take that very seriously. I believe that there’s a really strong value in kids learning test-taking skills. My students, nor any for that matter, should never lose out on an opportunity like law school or medical school because they’re unfamiliar with how to think carefully and logically and recall material quickly.

However, I think my kids will learn enough about how to take tests without me adding an unnecessary U.S. History test. The time spent on PARCC testing will likely be above and beyond what we’ve seen in schools before. The time spent on the test for high school students will be close to 10 hours. And even though PARCC and Smarter Balanced tests are supposed to be designed so that you can’t teach to the test, schools under pressure to meet data goals are likely to emphasize test prep to show that they’re making efforts to improve. If I don’t give a test, my kids will still pick up test taking skills.

So, this is a call for comments, thoughts and suggestions. What do you think? Should I do away with multiple-choice tests in my history course? Is my reasoning sound? Is it worth it to try this grand experiment? (I also realize multiple choice is not the way assessment has always been done, in fact, they did not come into widespread use until the late 1910’s.) Am I foolishly opening myself up to becoming the dreaded “easy-teacher” who kids eventually end up blowing off? Help me make this decision!

The opinions expressed in Connecting the Dots: Ideas and Practice in Teaching are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.