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Why Our Children Need National Multiple Choice Tests

By       Message Patrick Mattimore     Permalink
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At the National Education Association Representative Assembly in 2007, Democratic presidential contenders routinely lambasted the No Child Left Behind law, focusing largely on the testing requirements of the law.

Then candidates President Obama, Vice-President Biden, and Secretary of State Clinton all referred disparagingly to children filling in bubbles on standardized tests. Both Secretary Clinton and Vice-President Biden suggested that children were being forced to memorize things which, according to Secretary Clinton, got in the way of learning and, to Vice-President Biden's way of thinking, subverted critical thought. Secretary Clinton further opined that we were allowing our testing to drive our curriculum, rather than the other way around.

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President Obama said that teachers had devoted themselves to teaching, not testing. Former Senator John Edwards pointed to the tee shirts that were being distributed at the Convention and repeated the shirt's message that a child was more than a test.

These sentiments all make sense but they are fundamentally flawed. The politicians' ideas imply an either/or situation when, in fact, standardized tests should go hand-in-hand with teaching. Testing and teaching are and must be conjoined. Each informs the other. Memorization is not inimical to either learning or critical thinking but is often the touchstone for those higher-order skills.

To many educators, standardized multiple choice tests are the wrong
way to assess what our kids are learning. But those tests are and should be the primary instrument we use to measure student progress.   

Multiple choice tests are everywhere in America. They are the primary
yardsticks in our K-12 assessments. Among other things, we use multiple choice tests for: college admissions; graduate school admissions; teacher licensing programs; licensing drivers, and; admission to professional practices, such as state bars.

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Multiple choice tests provide fast results, allowing teachers to provide immediate feedback and corrections. They are accurate, easy to administer and understand, objective, can be norm or criterion referenced, and most importantly, can test a variety of complexities of student knowledge.

To suggest that filling in bubbles is an endpoint of instruction misses the obvious point that the bubbling activity is a means for checking how well students are learning. Critics claim that the tests stifle creativity by forcing students to think in terms of right answers instead of possibilities, unfairly brand students, and measure only narrow ranges of ability.

But, a well-constructed multiple choice test will not only measure a student's retention of facts, but test that student's ability to apply what she has learned to novel problems and to make connections and inferences. A multiple choice test that incorporates a taxonomy of higher levels of thinking will force students to analyze, evaluate, and synthesize information.

Standardizing the tests insures that our students are being challenged on like measures and enables us to see across the board what is working and what is not. As an assessment measure, standardized multiple choice tests may not paint a student's complete academic portrait but they certainly provide us with a reasonable snapshot.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan should insist upon standardized national assessment measures for all our students in every grade and those assessments should be primarily multiple choice.

Our elected representatives should disregard the educational reform chant that suggests that our current classroom deficiencies spring from the primary measures that help us diagnose our students' shortcomings. This is a classic case of shooting the messenger when what we should be doing is looking to that messenger to assist us in solving our educational problems.

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Freelance journalist; fellow, Institute for Analytic Journalism.

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