Thursday, October 28, 2010

Multiple choice tests: cui bono?

Mulitple choice exams are the definitive way to make invalid and unreliable inferences about learning.

But if multiple choice exams are not for the kids or even for the teachers, then why are they so predominant in schools? The Latin adage cui bono (literally translates to "as a benefit to whom?" or "to whose benefit?") can provide us with some meaningful reflection upon practices that we have come to take for granted as given truths.

Cui bono? is a tough question to ask because we might have to question our own practices and premises, which can be more than a little uncomfortable - especially when blaming the kids seems to be far easier and infinitely more comforting.

But what if the kids are not to blame?

What if it's not the kids whom need fixing?

What if I we shouldn't be giving multiple choice exams in the first place?

If this is the case, then who are multiple choice exams for? Let's first tackle this question with whom they are not for. Firstly, they aren't for the kids. Want proof? Think back upon your own schooling - to what extent can you attribute a thought-provoking and a rich learning experience with multiple choice tests? How many multiple choice tests did you complete and walk away saying "boy, that was a great way for me to best exhibit my learning!"?

Secondly, they aren't for good teachers. Any results expunged from a multiple choice exam is at best data-rich and knowledge poor. Anyone using data must understand that what we see largely depends on what we look for - and because multiple choice exams equate to a kind of thinking handcuffs, they simply don't let us see anything of any value. The best teachers know that any attempt to reduce something as rich and messy as learning to a number or symbol is infinitely foolish, intellectually indefensible and morally bankrupt. Alfie Kohn puts it this way:

In my experience, the people who work most closely with kids are the most likely to understand how harmful standardized testing is. Many teachers – particularly those who are very talented – have what might be described as a dislike/hate relationship with these exams. Support for testing seems to grow as you move away from the students, going from teacher to principal to central office administrator to school board member to state board member, state legislator, and governor. Those for whom classroom visits are occasional photo opportunities are most likely to be big fans of testing and to offer self-congratulatory sound bites about the need for “tougher standards” and “accountability.” The more that parents and other members of the community learn about these tests, the more critical of them – if not appalled by them -- they tend to become.

Thirdly, they aren't for the parents. When parents speak with their child's teachers, they don't really want to know which quartile or stanine their child fits in. At the heart of their concerns are their desire to know how their child interacts with others. Are they caring, empathetic, responsible, hard working, respectful, kind, etc. The data analysis printout multiple choice tests spew out merely act as a side-show distraction from what really matters in the development of a child.

So if multiple choice tests are not for the kids and they're not for the teachers or parents who are these things for? Who benefits from such assessment witchcraft?

Alfie Kohn offers an interesting take on the purpose of multiple choice tests: 

You know it's a bad assessment if it's multiple choice. Multiple choice tests can be clever but they can't be authentic. You can't learn what kids know and what they can do with what they know, if they can't generate a response - or at least explain a response. Or as one expert in psychometrics told me many years ago, "Alfie don't you get it, multiple choice tests are designed so lots of students who understand the material will be tricked into picking the wrong response". That's why teachers would never dream of giving a multiple choice test of their own design because the same thing applies there. 

So who would ever do this to children?

I call them The Suits.

Let me explain:

I've written before that accountability has come to be defined as More control for people outside of the classroom over those who are in the classroom, and I often refer to these life-sucking, data mongers as The Suits; and if schools are to be ran by these Suits who don't even work in the same building as the kids, they need data to drive everyone else's decisions.

The Suits may need multiple choice tests, but we don't need either of them.

Before you give another multiple choice exam, go ahead and ask cui bono?

1 comment:

  1. I would guess that, for some, multiple choice exams make "grading" faster and less subjective in some people's opinions. Neither will benefit students.

    The companies that produce the bubble sheets, scanners, and standardized multiple choice tests definitely benefit.

    Glad I teach music. Students cannot demonstrate what they learn in my class through multiple choice tests.

    I wrote a similar post almost 3 years ago. Sad we're still discussing, eh?


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