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Patrick Halbrook

How do our assessments shape our students?

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A recent article in Forbes described the difficulty with which students today struggle to think for themselves, placing the blame on a culture of standardized testing and multiple-choice assessments. Peter Greene writes:

Quote

...Much has been written about the effects of high stakes testing on education, but we should also pay attention to the nature of the tests themselves. They are, for the most part, standardized multiple-choice tests, and as such, they promote a particular view of the world.

Consider the difference between the two following questioning strategies:

Read this poem. What do you think the author's main idea is? Provide some evidence of how particular words and images are an important part of how the author makes their point. You'll be scored on how well you express and support your idea.

Read this poem. Here are four possible statements that could be the author's main idea, but only one is correct. Pick that one. Here are four quotes from the poem that might be the most important evidence of the author's main idea, but only one choice is correct. Pick that one.

The first strategy encourages the student to explore, to think, and to support her own ideas. Her task is to think and to express her thinking. The second strategy tells the student that the questions have already been settled and that somebody already knows the one correct answer. Her task is to figure out what that somebody believes the answer to be. The second is anti-thought. Even though a question like "what's the most important detail" is what many students would consider an opinion question, successfully answering means setting aside their own opinions, their own thoughts, and trying to predict the opinions and thoughts of the test writers...

https://www.forbes.com/sites/petergreene/2019/04/06/have-we-stolen-a-generations-independent-thought/

Whatever has gone wrong in education can be attributed to much more than the advent of standardized testing, but I think the author is definitely onto something here. The way we construct our assessments has short-term and long-term consequences: 1) in the short-term: it communicates to our students the outcome we expect from their lessons, and 2) in the long-term: it cumulatively trains students specific ways of thinking and encountering the world.

The difficulty, of course, is that the best assessments are typically the most difficult to grade. Even a computer can grade millions of multiple choice test without a problem, but it takes a skilled teacher to explain to a student how well he or she has expressed wisdom and virtue in a creative essay. It also takes a LOT more time, something teachers are typically running short on.

The multiple-choice worldview is pervasive. When my kids were preschool-age they'd sometimes watch a somewhat-lame-but-not-too-terribly-awful PBS show called Super Why! which was supposed to promote reading (the kids/superheroes would travel into fairy tales to learn lessons that would solve problems they were having). Then, as they try to figure out what to do next, the viewer was given a multiple choice question to answer about something that was happening. Grownups can't get away from it either. Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? (which I just discovered, after a quick Google search, is still on TV and in its 19th season) revolves around winning a million dollars by succeeding on...a high-stakes multiple-choice test.

As classical educators, how do we construct assessments for our students that help to train them to think? When are multiple-choice questions appropriate? (And how do those of us who teach a large number of students every day, or homeschooling moms with dozens of other responsibilities, find time to grade them?)

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