The End of Multiple Choice and Testing’s Bold New Era

Jed Applerouth, PhD
August 20, 2013
min read
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It’s time to prepare our eulogy for multiple choice, a method of assessment that revolutionized education, enabled the national testing movement, and ultimately drew as many critics as supporters. We must welcome the brave new world of computer adaptive and responsive tests that will be the hallmark of 21st century educational assessment. The dawn of an era is just around the corner.

Change in education is nothing new. Throughout history, assessments have evolved whenever technological advancements have enabled greater reliability or efficiency. Imperial China introduced the world to our earliest known standardized tests through its civil service exams in the seventh century CE. Great Britain rolled out the first comprehensive standardized educational assessments in the early 19th century. During the First World War, taking advantage of revolutions in communications and logistics, the US military assessed the skills of 1.5 million recruits using its breakthrough Army Alpha Beta tests. The mass-testing movement took its next leap forward in 1926 when the SAT hit the scene, and the prototype Scantron tests arrived in the early 1930s. The groundwork for a technologically advanced national testing movement was in place and education has never been the same.

Anyone who has participated in American education over the last 60 years is intimately acquainted with the standard multiple-choice grid: the neatly ordered ovals and the mandate to make strong, complete marks yet stay within the defined boundaries. For years we’ve grappled with whether to pick C, or leave an item blank, or throw up our hands in frustration before filling in those ovals in patterns ranging from zig-zags to Christmas trees. For the ovally-challenged among us, life is about to get a lot easier.

“We are leaving the world of multiple choice," announced Susan Andrews, Georgia’s Deputy Superintendent for Race to the Top, a multi-billion dollar government education initiative, at the recent conference of the Georgia Association for Educational Leaders. With the Common Core States Standards Initiative poised to transform education, the PARCC and Smarter Balanced testing consortia are developing digital assessments to take our K-12 students into the 21st century. Though Georgia and several other states will develop their own assessments, these will likely follow the lead of PARCC down a path that leaves multiple choice in the dust.

PARCC has been generous enough to release sample questions to illustrate the kind of changes coming to school-based assessments. This question type is of particular interest:

In this format, students need to demonstrate a deeper understanding of the math concept assessed than they would in a multiple-choice test. Students cannot work backwards from provided answer choices; they simply need to demonstrate mastery of the math concept in question.

Even such iconic tests as the SAT and the ACT may soon move away from multiple-choice questions. ACT Inc.’s Jon Erickson and the College Board’s David Coleman have announced overhauls of their respective tests. The ACT is going digital in the Spring of 2015, paving the way for question types that get beyond the bubble. The SAT is overhauling its content to create greater alignment with the Common Core State Standards before releasing its own yet-to-be-announced digital version.

To understand what lies ahead for college admissions tests, we need only look to the world of graduate school admissions tests, which entered the digital age more than 20 years ago. In 1992 ETS served up the first digital version of the GRE exam, followed closely by the first computer adaptive GRE exam in 1993. Other graduate testing groups soon offered their own digital versions of their assessments, including the GMAT, MCAT, DAT and many others. In 2005 the Graduate Management Admission Council became the first admissions testing institution to retire its paper-based test when it ceased offering a non-digital GMAT; in the near future, paper will become increasingly scarce in the world of graduate admissions exams. As the graduate tests lead, the college admissions tests will follow: there will come a time when it will be impossible to take the SAT or ACT in anything other than a digital format.

Going digital is generally a multistage process. The initial stage consists of uploading static, paper-based content into a digital format. The first digital ACT will likely take this route: play it safe, just get it online and make sure it works (ACT Inc. partnered with Pearsons in 2012 to help avoid digital snafus such as that which occurred with ACT’s end of course tests in Kentucky in May). The second stage involves taking preliminary steps towards responsive and adaptive content, offering a mixture of dynamic and static questions types. The final stage involves the kind of deep technological integration and interactivity that transforms the experience of test-taking. Jon Erikson painted a visual picture of this final stage, in which students on the Science section of the ACT will conduct their own digital science experiments in a virtual lab to assess their scientific knowledge. We’ll have to wait some time before testing gets that exciting.

More than likely, the SAT and ACT will move cautiously towards interactive digital content, incorporating recent testing innovations introduced by the overhauled 2011 GRE and 2012 GMAT exams. The new GRE introduced questions with multiple correct answers: on these test items, students are asked to select the best two answers or choose all answers that apply. Other questions ask students to select up to three words from distinct vocabulary groups to logically complete a sentence. The GRE also introduced a question type on the Verbal section which allows students to click on particular words or sentences in a given paragraph in lieu of selecting circumscribed A,B,C,D answer choices. Without the scaffold of multiple choice, the number of potential answer choices significantly increases. The GMAT has taken interactivity a level further with its new integrated reasoning section. In this section, students are able to transform and manipulate charts, tables and graphs and generate inferences from multiple data sources; I anticipate the first dynamic versions of the ACT Science section will take pages directly from the GMAT’s playbook.

As we pay our respects to multiple choice, a testing format that has touched us all, we can take comfort in the fact that the tests of the future are going to be more engaging and more robust for gauging student knowledge. For decades, the call has been issued to build better tests for our students. It’s refreshing to see that test developers are finally taking meaningful steps towards this goal.

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