]]]]]]]]]]]]]]] MULTIPLE CHOICE FLUNKS OUT [[[[[[[[[[[[ by Jacques Barzun (cultural critic and historian) (11/2/88) Op-Ed Page, The New York Times 10-11-88 [Kindly uploaded by Freeman 07656GAED] Many things have been urged upon the beleaguered public schools: install computers, reduce class size, pay teachers better and respect them more and give them bodyguards, reform teacher training, restore the principal's authority, purge the bureaucracy and reduce paperwork, stick to the basics, stop "social promotion," kill social studies and bring back history, and (the latest plan) pay kids not to drop out or play truant. Except for the last, all these ideas have merit and some are being tried. But to the best of my knowledge the central feature of modern schooling has never been taken up: the multi- choice test. This test and its variants--filling in words, rearranging items, etc.--dominates teachers' and students' minds. [Is this really what's going on in todays' classrooms? Good God! BG] Passing and failing, ratings of teachers and schools, national and state rankings, the rise and fall of literacy, admission to college and other institutions--all hang upon this instrument peculiar to our century. It is harmful to learning and teaching. Yes, I know the arguments in favor of these "objective" tests: They are easy to grade; uniformity and unmistakable answers answers imply fairness; one can compare performance over time and guage the results of programs; the validity of questions is statistically tested and the performance of students is followed up through later years. If the tests do test what is suppossed, such advantages look overwhelming, and it must seem perverse to call them harmful. But since their adoption, the results of the huge effort and expense of public schooling have been less and less satisfactory. Many studies have shown the failure of our schools: High school graduates cannot read or write acceptably, do not know which half of the 19th century Lincoln was President and can hardly identify four states on the map. What has this to do with mechanical testing? Simply this: Multiple-choice questions test nothing but passive-recognition knowledge, not active usable knowledge. Knowing something means the power to summon up facts and their significance in the right relations. Mechanical testing does not foster this power. It is one thing to pick out Valley Forge, not Dobbs Ferry or Little Rock, as the place where George Washington made his winter headquarters; it is another, first, to think of Valley Forge and then to say why he chose it rather than Philadelphia, where it was warmer. In subjects that require something other than information-- the development of skill, as in reading, writing and mathematics--straining toward a plausible choice is not instructional. Nobody ever learned to write better by filling in the blanks with proffered verbs and adjectives. To write is to fill a totally blank sheet with words of your own. Multiple-choice tests, whether of fact or skill, break up the unity of knowledge and isolate the pieces; in them, nothing follows on anything else, and a student's mind must keep jump- ing. True testing elicits the pattern originally learned. An essay examination reinforces pattern-making. Ability shows itself not in the number of accurate "hits" but in the extent, coherence and verbal accuracy of each whole answer. Science and math consists of similiar clusters of thought, and, in all subjects, composing organised statements requires full-blown thinking. Objective tests ask only for sorting. So true is this that some schools have had to set up "courses in thinking"--as if thinking could or should be taught apart from curriculum subjects. This is where the lost art of framing and grading essay questions comes in; such examinations imply what teaching aims at. Thirty years ago the physicist and teacher Banesh Hoffmann wrote a book, "The Tyranny of Testing," which was attacked by the test-making industry and ignored by educationists. It showed how multiple-choice questions, by their form and substance, work against the aim of teaching. He pointed out that these questions penalize the more imaginative and favor those who are content to collect facts. Therefore, multiple-choice test statistics, in all their uses, are misleading. Instead of forcing--and coaching--young minds in form-filling exercises, telling them "choose and take a chance," schools would be well advised to return to Ralph Waldo Emerson's "Tell us what you know."
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