The Multiple Choice Mind

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What’s wrong with standardized tests?

Federal and state governments have been pushing for more multiple choice, fill-in-the-bubble tests in our public schools for decades. Districts, teachers and administrators are labeled as effective or ineffective based on how well their students score on these tests. The whole media blitz of stories about failing schools comes down to this one thing: too many kids aren’t scoring well on their many, many standardized tests.

In an effort to increase test scores, public schools that miss the mark are being stripped of their school boards and given to for-profit companies who promise to bring up those scores but never actually do.

Meanwhile test-making companies like Pearson are raking in the cash BOTH producing the tests and the remedial material schools are told they need because their students aren’t scoring well enough.

And the reason for all these failing grades is obvious to anyone who actually looks at student demographics: the rich kids score high and the poor kids score low. So poor test scores are really an indicator of the almost 1/4 of American children living in poverty. But instead of attacking the root of the problem, politicians and policymakers scream for more standardized tests.

It’s a political scam that’s easy to see. One could oppose standardized testing without even looking at a single bubble sheet. But that would be to miss a perhaps even more pernicious aspect of this whole educational fiasco. There’s something wrong with the tests, themselves, with the whole idea that standardized testing taken to this extreme is (1) a good indicator of student learning and (2) produces sound educational outcomes.

To see how this is true, please answer the following multiple choice question.

Fill in the correct answer using a number two pencil. Please fill in the bubble directly before the letter of the answer choice that best completes the following sentence:

1) A strong emphasis on standardized testing in public education systems is                          to student learning.

( ) (A) essential
( ) (B) modeled
( ) (C) the expression of a standard in relation
( ) (D) peculiar

If you picked A-D, congratulations! You’ve written on your computer screen and may need to buy a new monitor, ipad or cellphone screen, in which case Bill Gates thanks you for playing!

If you chose a different answer in your own head such as “harmful,” “destructive” or “stunting,” then you’ve just shown the biggest problem with standardized tests: you have to pick between pre-approved alternatives. In the real world, we want people to be able to make their own decisions, not just chose from the available options. If someone asks, “Coke or Pepsi?” you should be free to answer “Water.” If someone asks, “Football or Basketball?” you should be free to say “Art.” If someone asks “Democrat or Republican?” you should be free to say “Independent.” But this is not how we are preparing our public school kids for the world. Standardized testing is an effective way to create good consumers, not good thinkers.

From a business point of view, one can see the value of narrowing people’s options. After all, the world is not multiple choice, but advertising is. We are constantly bombarded by false choices and expected to accept them at face value. Turn on the TV and you’ll be deluged by commercials for various energy drinks: Red Bull, Five-Hour Energy, Monster, etc. Nowhere will you find an advertisement for getting a good nights sleep or exercising regularly – things that might actually give you real energy and not just a caffeine boost. One could put it as a multiple choice test:

2) Which is the best way to get energy?
( ) (A) Drink Red Bull
( ) (B) Drink Five-Hour Energy
( ) (C) Drink Monster
( ) (D) Drink Rockstar

The correct answer isn’t even one of the choices. If you can get the consumer to let you frame the question, you can increase your market share and boost profits. Training people to accept limited choices, to accept someone else framing the alternatives is a good business model. Big business doesn’t care how well you can think, only how much you spend and continue to spend every week.

Compare this to our mainstream media. Talking heads get to frame the narrative convincing us there are only a limited number of possible choices in any news story. (Given how much we’ve internalized these media narratives, it’s best to give my examples in the most generic ways possible to avoid political knee-jerk reactions to hot button issues.) Are you with us or against us? Do you believe in science or religion? Are you for country A or Country B? Do you think product X is harmful or do you believe in free choice? Should people be allowed to do Z or are you a bad person?

Life is more complicated than that, but everyday you hear people foaming at the mouth, screaming at each other from only two well-defined view points. Again we could see this as a multiple choice question:

3) Which country do you side with?
( ) (A) Country A
( ) (B) Country B

No middle ground allowed. Rarely do you hear someone say Country A is right about this and wrong about that, while Country B is wrong about this and right about that. And we don’t even question it. Whether intentional or not, this is the outcome of a strong emphasis on standardized testing.

Think about it. Public school students today don’t just take one or two multiple choice, fill-in-the-bubble tests. Standardized testing easily can go into the double digits every year and gobble up months of class time. When kids aren’t testing, their teachers are being forced to steer the curriculum toward more test prep. We’re teaching generations of children that the most important choices – the ones that count – are multiple choice. If something requires you to think beyond the bubbles, it’s not as important.

The result of this decades-long effort to deify the standardized test as the only valid, objective measure of student learning is a dumbed down educational system. Sure, individual teachers and administrators fight against it, but legislators now insist the only measure of teacher efficacy is student achievement on these same tests. So any educator who goes above and beyond and teaches his students to think for themselves actually does himself a disservice professionally. How can students who expect to think outside of the box be accurately judged on their ability to pick between the same canned multiple choices? And if their test scores drop, this educator will be judged “ineffective” and – if he doesn’t straighten up and teach to the test – he’ll soon be out of a job.

The bottom line is simple: we need to reign way back on standardized testing. These test have value to evaluate the most basic levels of understanding, but abused they lead to the results explicated here.

We need to teach our young people to think outside of the box, not inside the bubble. But sadly even the school reform debate is usually framed in this reductionist pattern:

4) Which statement is true?
( ) (A) Corporate reform strategies like standardized tests are the best way to evaluate student learning.
( ) (B) Not all children can learn.

5) Student learning is best stimulated by which of the following?
( ) (A) Common Core and its associated testing
( ) (B) Traditional antiquated styles of learning.

6) Who has the best interests of students at heart?
( ) (A) corporate school reformers
( ) (B) people in the pocket of the teachers unions

The real answers go beyond the multiple choice mind. Our children are being trained not to be able to tell the difference. Can you?

 

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