Like all parents, I sometimes struggle with my child at homework time. My first grader’s regular math exercises include a variety of activities, including multiple choice questions. He often bubbles whatever answer strikes his fancy in hopes that I won’t notice or check his work. In anticipation of this, I now cover the answer options on his worksheet with mini post-it’s and ask him to work out the answer before he can lift up the stickies and fill in the bubbles. (Can you tell I’m the teacher mother?) This week, he was particularly frustrated with my strategy. It was 4:00. He wanted to go over to his friend’s house to play. He gave me that wide-eyed, Puss in Boots, imploring gaze and argued, “But Mom, sometimes bubbles help me. Can’t you just tell me the answer?” Now there’s a question I have fielded before. I gave him my stock answer: “I’ll tell you the right answer, honey. But then you have to tell me why it’s right.”
Lately, I’ve noted increased discussion and debate in professional networks about using multiple choice questions for assessment purposes. I’m going to make the argument for their proper placement in the landscape of ELA instruction. As a classroom practitioner, I wasn’t very fond of using multiple choice questions. There’s no better focus group for item development than the group of ticked off teenagers sitting in front of you who debate ad nauseum why your question is neither fair nor clear. If I had a dollar for each time I had to recollect bubble sheets and test papers to revise grades, I could buy a nice bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon. And a wheel of Brie cheese. And a baguette.
Ironically, I have spent the past year of my life writing many, many multiple choice questions. My lifestyle and my children’s current needs require that I work from home, and when you leave the classroom after sixteen years, your work-from-home choices aren’t too numerous. Given a choice between selling Tupperware on evenings and weekends or writing test items in my yoga pants, I’ll take what’s behind Door Number Two, Monty.
Over the past year, I have practiced the science of writing fair, balanced and logical selected response questions, but that took time away from the classroom to master. And it also took the practice of writing rationales for my answers. In the classroom, I seldom had to defend the correct answer to my multiple choice questions before administering them to my classes. I just had to bubble my answer key. And then find out later why I was wrong. And then correct my mistake. So, really, writing rationales (or even just making some quick notes) will take less time than tracking and correcting a poorly written question after it has been administered.
One thing I know for certain is that when I do return to the classroom, my use of selected response questions will be better informed. Here is my “to do” list.
1) Use selected response formatively to assess close reading passages, not summatively to assess extended reading. Yes, earlier in my teaching career, I gave a 50 question multiple choice test on the 400 page summer reading book. My sense of justice was keen. But that’s not really why we are supposed to use selected response questions. And in an Information Age, unless I prepare a test bank of 100 questions and vary them for each class, that multiple choice test will get compromised pretty quickly. More on this later.
2) Capitalize on opportunities to use assistive technology. Rapid access to data will help me do better work. I’m not enticed by the prospect of waiting in line to hover over the scantron machine during my planning period or lunch, when I could be interpreting data rather than gathering it and curating it. Yes, I want a tablet now, and I want to circulate with it throughout my classroom as students are working, helping those whose need is most imminent. Are you there tech gods? It’s me, Oona!
3) Keep all answer choices text based. I want to assess how closely my students are reading, not that they have read. There’s a difference. So my answer choices have to relate to how the content within the passage is being interpreted or misinterpreted. For example, if any multiple choice question you have written has “all of the above” or “none of the above” as options, scratch them. I know — it was late. We were tired. We just couldn’t think of one more possible answer choice. Which is why we shouldn’t ask those questions at all.
4) Be ready with rationales and alignment of standards. This might mean that I have an annotated passage ready to project on the SmartBoard, or notes jotted next to each incorrect answer choice. Students are less interested in why the correct answer is right and much more intent on discovering why the incorrect answer they chose is wrong. The more logical and text-aligned the rationale is, the more they will learn about close reading. In terms of standards, making sure that my questions address a range of standards is essential. Not surprisingly, my style of teaching addresses some standards more than others. So I have to make sure I address standards that are not necessarily in my instructional comfort zone.
5) Have students write selected response items, stems, choices and rationales. The kids want to know more about this. When I teach The Catcher in the Rye, one of my pre-reading questions is: What causes teenagers the most stress? The most popular answer? The SAT. Yup. Students want to know the science of multiple choice. In small doses. No, I am not teaching a unit on it. (Ugh.) But breaking them into chapter groups and asking them to select a short passage to write one question on is manageable. Some kids will find it fun. Others won’t. Just like all the other activities we do.
And now, since I have been lucky enough to have some reflection time on this, I know what I will not be doing in my classroom as it relates to multiple choice questions.
I will not:
1) Use selected response as a “gotcha” or write questions about minutiae to save the world from cheaters. Some things are in my control and in my province. Others aren’t. I’ve had kids who haven’t read who get better grades on a reading check quiz than the kids who have. This is because they share information with each other over the course of the school day. If you’re on a block schedule, the quiz you give on A day is long since compromised by B day. Even on A day, the student in my first block class will give away quiz content to a student in my fourth block class. This is because the students in my fourth block class are giving my first block students information on the Spanish quizzes or the math tests they took earlier in the day. It’s quite a cooperative enterprise, and that’s how they see it. So it’s time to rethink assessment practices. Are we policing or are we assessing? I spent way too much time doing the former, without substantive results.
2) Write a selected response for a task that is best administered as a constructed response or collaborative task. Writing tasks take time, as do group projects, but if it takes me half an hour to write a “good” analytical question, perhaps that time would be better spent setting up in-depth class discussion questions curated from social networking initiatives. Which task is more worth my time and my students’ time?
3) Use selected response tasks to populate my grade book. Fortunately, I have had the privilege of teaching in schools where the quality of assessments in my grade book was valued over the quantity. If teachers are required to have X number of assessments per marking period: why? No, I don’t think it’s fair to assess student performance for an entire quarter on three or four tasks. It’s also no fun to feel like we are all part of the big machine and the factory model. Are you there assessment gods?
I understand why many educators are opposed to assessing students using multiple choice questions, but I also believe that the bad reputation they get is in part due to their misuse. Let’s start the discussion about the questions we should be asking. But most importantly, let’s ask how we can get the students to form the best questions. The ones that are rooted in texts, the ones they will have to answer again and again, the ones that follow them out the doors of our classrooms.Oona Abrams is an English teacher with over fifteen years of public education experience in New Jersey, North Carolina and New York. She is an experienced teacher of resource, collaborative, college preparation, honors, AP and IB students. Her work has been published by Barron’s Educational Series, Educational Viewpoints and English Leadership Quarterly.