Multiple Choice Tests and the Downfall of American Education


Here is an excerpt from a rather lengthy blog post by Alex Terego. He makes a compelling point about how an educational testing process has had the ripple effect of reducing thinking skills.

In the 1960s schools found a way to grade tests more cheaply by using what we would now consider a rather dumb electronic device. It was an optical character recognition reader. As long as the student used a #2 pencil to fill in ovals the OCR reader could collect and grade the results of a test; a task traditionally performed by the teacher, at much greater cost.

There was just one issue: the OCR could only work if tests were administered in multiple choice formats. This is because an answer to a factual question has a true/false or right/wrong -objective- answer that is universally true. So, the only way to test for retention of factual information was to create tests beginning with “which of the following multiple choices is the true one?”. So, the more the curriculum was based on facts the easier it was for the OCR machine to replace the teacher, and take the drudgery of test-taking and grading out of their hands and save money.

If a question or problem needed a student to use facts as just one aspect of developing a subjective opinion, to which there is no universally accepted right or wrong answer, the OCR machine had no value.

So, for the past half century, in the name of efficiency and cost-savings we have been preparing students for a personal and employee life where they will be faced with issues that are overwhelmingly about subjective opinions by teaching them how to memorize facts. We opted to teach fact-memorization, and to grade our entire instructional structure based on its results.

You can read his whole post here.