Assessment Commentary

The Pendulum Swings

By Michael H. Kean — October 02, 2002 3 min read
Multiple choice assessments are one of many good choices, particularly in today's education climate.

We know educational assessment has reached a new level of debate when changes in state testing programs make national news.

A case in point is The Washington Post‘s recent front-page story (Sept. 19, 2002) on Maryland’s decision to end its Maryland School Performance Assessment Program, commonly known as the MSPAP.

Over the past decade, the MSPAP was hailed as among the best standards-based state assessment initiatives because of its ability to monitor school performance and hold school districts accountable for improvement. Now, Maryland officials have decided to modify the program, so that it will employ a traditional multiple- choice test to measure students and generate individual student information.

This move in Maryland may indicate that, after nearly a decade of emphasis on performance measures such as experiments, essays, and oral reports, the assessment pendulum is swinging back toward traditional assessment formats. And although many educators are justifiably interested in using a range of tools to measure student performance, there are a number of reasons why multiple-choice assessments are one of many good choices, particularly in today’s education climate. Here are a few:

  • Ease of Use. Multiple-choice tests are much easier to administer and score. Because performance assessments are hand-scored, they require elaborate procedures to guarantee objectivity. These procedures add weeks to the time needed to return reports to schools and districts.
  • Cost. Multiple-choice tests are attractive at a time when state education budgets are reeling from cutbacks because of the nation’s recent economic slowdown. Unlike a performance assessment that may cost as much as $100 per pupil or more to administer and score, the average price of a multiple-choice test is less than one-tenth of that.
  • Alignment With State Standards. The development and use of performance assessments grew in popularity in the early 1990s as states sought ways to measure more precisely their new academic standards. At the time, a majority of multiple-choice tests were “nationally normed,” that is, they were explicitly designed to provide information that compares student achievement with that of a representative national sample. The tests weren’t aligned to state standards because few states had academic standards until the mid-1990s. (In other words, there was nothing to align to.) The situation is different today. Forty-nine of the states have standards, and test publishers have worked with many of them to develop new tests that are aligned to those standards. Most of these tests rely upon a combination of multiple-choice and short-answer (constructed response) questions. Furthermore, today’s multiple-choice questions are explicitly designed to measure higher-order thinking skills.
Because state programs using multiple-choice tests do not require as much time, more hours in the school calendar are available for direct instruction.

  • Concern Over Testing Backlash. Over the past three years, many states have witnessed a backlash against testing. While the shrillness of testing critics has been much greater than their number, state policymakers have become concerned about the amount of time students spend taking tests. Generally, state programs using multiple-choice tests do not require as much time. As a result, more hours in the school calendar are available for direct instruction.
  • Federal Law. The “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001 will require states to administer annual tests in reading and mathematics in grades 3-8, beginning in the 2005-06 academic year. The tests must yield student information. The new law was a factor in Maryland’s decision. It will surely be a factor in many other states, as educators and policymakers grapple with how best to create valid and reliable assessment systems that can generate student information in a timely and efficient manner.

Given the important role of tests in today’s education environment, changes to state assessment systems need to be carefully thought out and planned. After all, assessment results are a major force in shaping public perceptions about the achievement of students and the quality of schools. Educators use those results to help improve teaching and learning. They also use assessments to evaluate programs and the effectiveness of schools. And educational assessment is used to generate the data on which policy decisions are made.

Today’s multiple-choice tests can fulfill all those functions. As the assessment pendulum swings, it is important to remember, however, that different types of test questions can all contribute valuable information; and it is the information provided by the test that is most helpful.

Michael Kean chairs the test committee of the Association of American Publishers. He is the vice president for public and governmental affairs at McGraw-Hill Education, in Monterey, Calif.


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