Posted in Challenges, Education, Math, Sixth Grade, STEM, Teaching, Testing

The Horrors of Multiple Choice Tests

As a student, I was a horrible test taker.  While I knew all most of the material and could utilize the skills covered, I struggled to demonstrate my mastery and understanding on various tests.  Perhaps it was test anxiety.  I was a nervous child and am a slightly worrisome adult; however, I wonder if it was more than just that which caused my low grades on in-class tests.  Most of the assessments I completed in school included multiple choice, true-false, fill-in-the-blank, or short answer questions.  Tests with those kind of questions required memorization of the material and not understanding.  No matter how well I understood the causes of WWII, if I didn’t memorize dates and names, I did poorly on the class exams.  This was the case throughout my years of schooling until I got to college.  In college, tests included essay questions and prompts that allowed me to think critically about the content learned and explain and analyze it.  That, I was good at.  It was a shame that it took so long for me to not dread and hate tests.  Perhaps I might have learned more or been a better, more effective student had I not been bombarded with poorly crafted exams and tests.  Being able to circle the correct bubble on a test or choose the right letter seems to me more about luck than an understanding of the material.

As a teacher, I find alternative ways to assess my students.  I use Project Based Learning, group work, research projects, activities, oral exams, and varied written assessments to be sure my students have mastered the objectives covered.  Learning is not about knowing a bunch of stuff, dates, or names, it’s about understanding the whys and hows of that knowledge.  What lead to the Punic Wars?  How does Darwin’s Theory of Evolution apply to modern day life?  I empower my students to look at the world through a critical lense and analyze what it’s all about.  I want them to ask questions and try to find answers.  I want them to dig and dig through information and use their peers as resources to learn and understand the material covered.  I will not bore or worry my students by giving them tests and quizzes in which memorization is required.  I want them to be able to think for themselves in order to become effective global citizens.  If my students know how to solve problems they encounter but forget the dates of WWI, they will still be successful students and citizens.  At the end of the day, information can be Googled or quickly researched online.  Learning and teaching are changing because of the grand advent of technology and instant access to information.  Students no longer need to transform their brains into encyclopedias as they can access them on their phones or iPads with the click of a button.

Now, I do wish that I never had to introduce my students to tests including multiple guess questions and the need for memorization; however, many of the teachers in the upper grades at my school utilize this form of assessment.  The math placement exams our students will complete at the start of their seventh grade year are nothing but multiple choice.  If I didn’t at least introduce my students to testing of this nature and allow them to see and practice completing tests like this, I would be doing them a disservice as their teacher.  I need to fully prepare my students for the rigors of their future years of schooling.  While I want them to be critical thinkers and creative problem solvers, I want them to feel as though they can tackle any problem thrown their way, including multiple guess tests.  So to do this, during the final term of the academic year, we sprinkle in some assessments that include memorization and multiple guess questions.  We also are very clear with the students, “You will need to know how to complete various tests you will see next year and beyond.  You will need to know how to approach multiple choice tests and how to memorize information effectively, which is why we are having you complete various assessments throughout the spring term.”  While I’m not a fan and nor are my students, it is a necessary evil.  One day, I’m hopeful that the education leaders of our world will see the drawbacks and negative outcomes of standardized tests or tests that require memorization and rid schools of them.  Until that day, I must do what I can to equip my students with every skill possible.

Today in STEM class, I had the students complete a Math Placement Test, much like the one they will see in the fall at the start of their seventh grade year.  I want to be sure they understand how to approach multiple guess tests.  I also want to be sure they have gained the skills necessary to be an effective math student and problem solver.  Our final STEM unit of the year includes a math component in which they will fill in any gaps or holes they may have in their understanding of the content covered.  Stress and anxiety filled the room as soon as I handed out the assessment, which included only 30 multiple choice questions.  They had numerous questions and were very nervous.  They didn’t seem to understand what the questions were asking them and they were confused by how the material was being covered.  They felt tricked and betrayed.  I empathized with them and told them that tests like these are very confusing and challenging, but they will allow us, as teachers, to help you hone your math skills prior to next year.  While this didn’t seem to help, the students persevered, for the most part.  One student ended up having a meltdown because he was so overwhelmed.  He said, “I know what the question is asking me but the tables and charts are confusing.  I don’t know what to do.”  This lead to tears and frustration.  So, I had him take a break and complete a lower level exam during our afternoon study hall.  This helped and he was much more calm and relaxed.  However, that shouldn’t have had to happen.  Students should never feel stressed or overly anxious in school.  They should feel safe and supported.  Yes, school and learning is challenging, but not anxiety-inducing.  There’s a difference.  Standardized-type tests produce stress within our students.  While they need to understand how to deal with them, I still don’t like the atmosphere that is fostered in the classroom when we proctor them.  For me, the big issue with horrible and awful tests including multiple guess questions is that unless the students show their work on the test paper, how do I know if they really understand the content covered?  They could have guessed or chosen an answer at random.  What if I have them solve a problem on paper instead?  What if I have them complete a project that applies the skills learned?  Wouldn’t those options be much more engaging and foster a sense of support and challenge amongst the students?  Isn’t that what teachers want for their students?  Genuine learning happens when students are relaxed cared for not when stress and anxiety fill their brains.



I teach sixth grade at Cardigan Mountain School in Canaan, NH. I'm currently ensconced in my fourteenth year at this small, independent boys' school. I love engaging students in relevant and hands-on learning. I was nominated for the NH Teacher of the Year Award in 2016 by a parent. While I love education and guiding students, my first passion is my family. I have a wonderful son, Jeffrey, and a beautiful and intelligent wife, Kim. I couldn't be happier. Every day is the best day of my life.

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