14 Reasons Multiple Choice Tests Suck #edreform

The kids are testing right now, filling out bubbles and every part of me wants to burst the bubble and set them free. It’s a factory-transmission-mind-dump and even though I know they can articulate their learning, they have to prove it quantifiably on a kill-and-drill test that is both easier and harder than it should be.

And me? I’m feeling more like a drill-sergeant-text-proctor today than a teacher. I am bothered by the silence, by the tension and by the unnecessary adversarial relationship it creates.

Want to find the cheapest way to reform education? Get rid of the incessant multiple-choice testing. It won’t fix everything, but it would be a great first step. Here are fourteen reasons why we should abandon our obsession with multiple choice tests:

  1. Multiple choice is shallow. I know people try to create analytical, evaluative and creative questions. However, the medium itself is one of recall and recognition. 
  2. Knowledge is often connective and deeply rooted in context. Multiple choice takes away connective thinking and puts it into empty silos, where knowledge is reduced to lowest common denominator. I want students to know information. However, I also want them to know applied information. I want them to put the information together.
  3. Multiple choice is unreliable. As long as a student can guess a correct answer, every question is somewhat suspect. I get it. Teachers can look for overall trends and take out the statistical probability of guessing. However, how does that help anyone figure out if a child needs additional support with a concept. 
  4. There is rarely a chance to explain why something is true. Students should be able to articulate what they know and give a defense for why it is true. 
  5. Multiple choice kills the desire to learn. It might not sound like a big deal, but every time my students take a test, they are less likely to enjoy what they learn. 
  6. If you try for critical thinking, multiple choice tests become subjective. Students end up with questions like, "Which of the following best describes . . ." and the test becomes meaningless.
  7. Multiple choice does not allow for nuance, paradox or mystery. 
  8. Students need to see knowledge as contextual and personal. Multiple choice tests are standardized, impersonal and void of any real context. Students internalize the idea that learning is something irrelevant. 
  9. It reduces self-efficacy. Multiple choice tests fail to allow students to find information themselves and make decisions about their learning. To do so would make tests "unreliable." Too many variables. Unfortunately, life has multiple variables and "learn to be a critical thinking citizen" cannot be easily measured.
  10. Multiple choice pushes students toward a narrow, celebral definition of learning. Multiple choice does not allow for social learning. Instead, students must prove what they know in isolation. It doesn't allow for multiple modalities or differentiation, either. 
  11. Google has replaced multiple choice. In an era when knowledge is instantly available, we should be seeing whether students can find information, ask deep questions, engage with sources, curate what they find and find the bias in a source. Multiple choice doesn't allow for any of these necessary skills.
  12. It's way too easy to cheat, both for teachers and for students. 
  13. Learning is often a creative endeavor. However, multiple choice tests do not allow students to be creative, divergent or innovative. 
  14. Multiple choice tests are often not valid. For example, if a standard is concept standard, it often cannot be assessed in multiple options. If a standard is a process or a product, they probably should be assessed by actually doing the process and making the product. So, we're left with the assessment of skills, and only those that fit nicely into multiple options.
So, that leaves me thinking about the Common Core Standards (proper noun there -- very, proper, from very proper people). I embrace the fact that the new standards push for critical thinking. I am glad we're finally talking about innovation. I'm impressed that digital literacy now matters. 

But how will we assess it? 

My guess is that in order for the tests to be reliable and in order to aggregate the data efficiently, we're going to see more multiple choice questions. And here's the thing: the format and the content influence each other. Trying to push critical thinking and creativity into multiple choice is like trying to put Jesus onto a shallow device like a television. People do it, but they probably shouldn't.

Some Nuance:
I'm not opposed to the tool entirely. Multiple choice makes sense when looking for large data trends and efficiently measuring certain (though a very limited number) of standards. My issue is this: we are spending weeks (at least six) taking multiple choice tests. We are using the tool wrong the vast majority of the time.
John Spencer

Professor. Maker. Speaker.
I want to see schools unleash the creative potential in all teachers to transform classrooms into bastions of creativity and wonder. Read more →
Email me at john@educationrethink.com

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