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Assessment Opinion

Test Prep Twist: No Choices Over Multiple Choices

By David Ginsburg — February 05, 2011 2 min read
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In Teaching TO the Test vs. Teaching the Test, I wrote that there’s nothing wrong with teaching to a test in terms of content, as long as that test is aligned to appropriate, rigorous curriculum. Yet I also wrote that it’s a disservice to students to devote class after class to assignments and assessments that are knock-offs of standardized tests both in content and format. In other words, non-stop test prep.

Unfortunately, with all the pressure to raise scores, perpetual test prep prevails at many schools today. And so, if being a disservice to students isn’t enough reason to rethink this, here’s another reason: typical test prep tactics often fail to raise scores.

Ironically, for example, a key to preparing students for standardized test multiple choice questions is to not give them multiple choice questions in class. I first heard this at a conference about 15 years ago, and my experience bears it out. (I can’t recall the speaker’s name or the research she cited, so please let me know if you’ve come across it.)

A big reason for this from what I’ve seen is that students develop a stronger test-taking work ethic when they’re accustomed to

digging for answers without the distraction of the right answer staring them in the face. And because wrong answers are also staring them in the face on multiple choice tests, the more conditioned kids are to working through questions thoroughly in class, the less vulnerable they are to incorrect “distractor” choices on standardized tests.

Another factor is confidence. And just as sports coaches design practices to be more grueling than games, so too should class work push students beyond where they’ll need to go on high-stakes tests. The result, whether it’s game time or test time, is a more confident, better prepared player or student. I’m reminded of countless kids who returned to my class after standardized tests and said, “Coach G, that test was much easier than what you give us.”

I’m not suggesting you avoid multiple choice questions to the point where students stumble on standardized tests just because they’re unfamiliar with the format. Yet even when I assigned multiple choice practice in college entrance test prep classes, I advised students to work through each question with the choices covered up, and then compare their answer with the choices. And again, they fell prey to distractor choices less often as a result.

This multiple choice moratorium makes even more sense when standardized tests include open-ended items in addition to multiple choice items, as is the case in my home state of Pennsylvania. The point being that whereas a steady diet of open-ended questions in class also prepares students to handle multiple choice questions on tests, it doesn’t work the other way around.

So if you want students to pick the right choices on standardized tests, make the right choice when developing your tests (and assignments): questions with no choices rather than multiple ones.

Image by Cmcderm1, provided by Dreamstime license

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