E) None of the Above

Issue 7, Volume 113

By Ushoshi Das 

A chorus of groans and sighs: the teacher has just announced yet another test. Students look around the room, hoping that someone will ask that vital question: will the exam be multiple choice? If the teacher answers in the affirmative, there’s an immediate relaxing of shoulders and sighs of relief. Like all my classmates, I appreciate a good multiple choice test. After all, all of us cracked the SHSAT. At the same time, I recognize that multiple choice questions (MCQs) are not an effective way of measuring student proficiency. High school education should shift to written responses to better assess student progress, while preparing students for important exams like the standardized state tests, Regents, and Advanced Placement (AP) tests.

At a large school like Stuyvesant, where teachers often have over 100 students each, it makes sense to give MCQs. After all, they are easier to grade. Answer sheets are simply scanned through a machine or on a phone (or in the case of a Google Form, the tests are graded automatically). Because of this convenient format, some teachers give frequent MCQ exit tickets and pop quizzes to survey student progress in class. Since students are picking from a list of four to five answers, they do not need to formulate their own answers (unless the question requires calculations, in which case the answer choices only serve as a way to double-check that they have gotten the right answer). Teachers often give more MCQs to compensate and to test students on more concepts.

However, the multiple choice format teaches students to prioritize test-taking strategies over learning material. Students learn to use MCQs as a crutch: when they struggle to answer a question, they know that without any elimination, there is generally a 20 to 25 percent chance of getting the question right using random selection. A simple Google search reveals millions of results explaining how to best answer MCQs. Some of the most popular strategies are to choose the most detailed answer, to avoid absolutes such as “never” and “always,” and to disregard options that do not align grammatically with the prompt.

Arguably, the best strategy for taking MCQs is the process of elimination. I began taking MCQs in the third grade in preparation for the state test. The first strategy we learned was to “cross out” choices that didn’t make sense for the English comprehension section, not to simply answer the question. Later, I was taught to apply this strategy to questions that required logic and memorization. Students also use the process of elimination to save time. Instead of figuring out the answer from scratch, students are taught to search for words that will immediately eliminate an answer from being reasonable.

But these methods defeat the purpose of tests—to test students’ critical thinking and knowledge of the subject—and leave teachers questioning the validity of the results. Students can game the system since they do not have to write out their thought processes. Teachers cannot possibly use these types of exams as a reliable survey of student comprehension. I myself am guilty of just wanting to be a good test-taker and receive a high grade instead of ensuring that I understand the material. This test format feeds into the rabbit hole of high school grades affecting college acceptances and, later in life, the ability to lead a successful career. Students are not taught to value what they learn. They simply learn to obsess over grades. Standardized testing is the norm: state tests begin in third grade, and now, we take the Regents, APs, PSAT, and SAT. But the way they are administered adds unnecessary pressure on students. When practicing for these tests, we are told that it is all about learning how to work through the answer choices.

While learning to reason through answer choices is a valuable skill, it does not allow for students to explain their thought processes. Many of my teachers ask us to choose the best answer choice, and when I pick something that is correct by my reasoning, I have no means of defending my answer. Answer choices in MCQs also prompt answers and thus never demonstrate if a student has truly absorbed the class material. There is no opportunity for partial credit. If students select the wrong answer choice, they get a zero on that question. With responses to short answer questions, teachers can better see students’ thought processes and their ability to apply concepts, and adjust their scoring system accordingly.

A study of medical students found that MCQs do not show whether students are “capable of using the knowledge in real-life situations” and that short answer questions are a more reliable testing alternative. Surgeons’ worth should not be based on whether they passed Human Anatomy by process of elimination. While higher grades based on MCQ assessments might seem more desirable for college admissions, the larger issue is knowledge.

Because of the large number of students taking standardized exams, it might seem that it is impractical to have these exams be anything but majority multiple choice. But tests like the AP history exams involve multiple extended responses and are graded efficiently, so this model could probably be expanded. Otherwise, the SAT and similar exams are open to being gamed and end up assessing test-taking strategies. Our larger goal should be a more educated America, not a nation great at taking MCQs, even if it means more groans and worries when tests are announced.