I Choose Multiple-Choice

Since its inception, the “I choose C” animation - which follows the first job interview of a girl who grew up with multiple-choice tests - has become the focal point of the Common Core movement, which has since become synonymous with anti-multiple-choice. Educating children in a system that instructs them to guess their way through tough problems, the video suggests, will give rise to a generation of students incapable of creativity and basic communication skills.


At first glance, this assertion doesn’t seem too far-fetched; the interviewee’s obtuse response – “I choose C… my fifth grade teacher told me to always choose C when I did not know the answer” – strikes a chord in many students who have been stumped on multiple choice tests before.


However, the video conveniently neglects a crucial fact: no sensible student would apply such a narrow suggestion (“choose C”) out of context, especially not during a formal job interview. Students are still sentient human beings that retain their common sense, regardless of the way they were evaluated as children.


To understand the motive behind this portrayal of standardized multiple-choice testing, it’s worth examining the origins of the anti-multiple-choice ideology.


In 2008, Janet Napolitano, former chair of the National Governors Association and one of the founders of Common Core, concluded that President W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” policy offered an incentive for states to write easy multiple-choice tests; according to Bush’s policy, the federal government required states to evaluate student performance but left the methods of evaluation to the states’ discretion. By writing easier, “guessable” tests, states could hide their students’ subpar academic performance from the federal government.


This blatant abuse of the multiple-choice test likely inspired the anti-multiple-choice movement. However, though such an abuse may deserve criticism, one must keep in mind that not all tests are created equal: not all multiple-choice tests are written to inflate a student’s actual understanding of the subject and to encourage minimal studying.


Take, for example, a typical question from the multiple-choice Biology Olympiad exam: instead of asking students to write about one of 947 species of gymnosperms - as a written test would - that question would instead ask “Which of the following is NOT a gymnosperm? (select ALL that apply, multiple answers are possible).”  Clearly, a student expecting the latter option would be more inclined to study extensively, since it is considerably more difficult to know about 947 species than one. The multiple-choice test requires students to know all species and be prepared to answer about the random five specific species listed, while the written test requires students to thoroughly elaborate on particular characteristics of gymnosperms. Thus, contrary to popular belief, some multiple-choice tests, when written well, can be just as difficult as written tests; both require extensive understandings of topics, just in different forms.


Another typical argument against multiple-choice testing is its emphasis on seemingly pointless memorization. A detractor of the multiple-choice format would criticize the Biology Olympiad for its mile-wide-inch-deep approach, with its emphasis on knowing the mere names of random plant species; instead, he or she would proclaim, the question ought to test a student’s inch-wide-mile-deep understanding, asking for in-depth descriptions of a few select species rather than a shallow understanding of a wider spectrum.


The truth is, both methods have their virtues and vices. The current system does call for extensive memorization of seemingly random names, but, as Confucius would say, “If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things.” In other words, understanding something often requires identifying it by its correct name, and that identification is made possible only through “random” memorization, which multiple-choice tests tend to encourage. Not all multiple-choice tests ask for mere identification and matching, but their structure tends to reward such tedious memorization.


On the other hand, while the inch-wide-mile-deep approach rewards students for extensive details, it also tends to encourage too narrow of a perspective. If a student knows the life cycle of the Arabidopsis Thaliana flower like the back of his hand but nothing about any other plant, is he truly an educated student?


However, regardless of its virtues, anti-multiple-choice does pose a threat to education because of the stigma it attaches to memorization, which is commonly associated with multiple-choice tests. Supposedly, multiple-choice tests encourage blind memorization because students are required to merely recognize facts, while written exams encourage deeper understanding because students are required to articulate facts.


True, the goal of education is to achieve a thorough understanding, and blind memorization doesn’t contribute much to that goal. But doesn’t all memorization appear to be “blind” at first? Memorizing the alphabet was like memorizing a random jumble of squiggles – that is, until we learned to combine them into words; memorizing the first one hundred counting numbers was like memorizing meaningless symbols – that is, until we learned to multiply, divide, add and subtract. In other words, memorization in itself does little, but achieving a deeper understanding of any subject requires deceptively “blind” or “random” memorization first.


In that sense, then, multiple-choice testing earns its merit. The leap from complete oblivion to complete understanding is a difficult one, and multiple-choice tests serve as stepping stones in between; they ask students to “blindly” memorize facts, which can be stored away for synthesis in the future. In contrast, written tests shift emphasis away from basic knowledge to synthesis, creating the faulty impression that those basic facts are trivial when in fact they are the key to achieving the very synthesis students strive for. By trivializing those basic facts that make up the foundation of understanding, written tests point students in the wrong direction.

So if the age-old question ever turns up again, how students should be evaluated, I choose multiple-choice.

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