Thursday, Jan. 10 2013 5:16PM
The culture of “multiple choice test” may narrow our vision of the world
By Emmanuel Ngomsi
If you can read this column, chances are high that you have taken multiple choice questions tests or “bubble tests” at some point of your schooling or somewhere else. Having completed much of my schooling outside of the U.S., my first MCQT was the Graduate Record Examination. Of course, I miserably failed my first attempt like most people from minority cultures do, whether they are local and foreign.
I was immensely surprised that in 1995 after I had won the National Foreign Language Fellowship Award, someone from Education Testing Service sent me a French MCQT test to validate, like if I were an expert in that method of assessing people in French.
As I continued to find out why multiple choice questions tests are so ubiquitous in the U.S. in schools and in most professions, I learned that they are generally more efficient than open-ended questions. The reasons often advanced by the proponents of MCQT include: 1) Scoring them is quick, easy and cost-effective; 2) they are free from scoring bias, because by contrast open-ended questions can be scored differently by different people; 3) when properly constructed there are clear right and wrong answers to each question. That is fine. I am not trying to challenge the use of MCQT, but I have learned that in life “quick, easy” and cheap things are more likely not good. Also, people should not always be forced to choose between “right and wrong.”
This is rather my point. This question that one may find in a MCQT, ”What makes a mouse and a cat alike?” may have answers like: a) They can eat each other; b) They both have tails; c) Both can sing; d) All of the above. The question seems to limit everyone’s knowledge to one single “right” answer with all the others being wrong. Let’s pose the same question this way: “Describe the ways a mouse and a cat are alike.” This question will generate many different right answers from diverse people: a 5-year-old, an animal lover, a veterinarian, a farmer in Butler, a person of Asian decent, a 70-year-old. Both the mouse and the cat have many things alike, but the first question does not even leave room for thinking.
A lot of educators believe that our overreliance on MCQT has forced teachers to “teach to the test” rather than focusing on helping students achieve deep conceptual understanding of critical and global skills indispensable for the 21st century life.
But, I would not align myself with the people who would celebrate the demise of the MCQT. Nevertheless, we should strongly ask ourselves if the culture of MCQT tests does not increase our “right or wrong” view of others and the world at large.
To paraphrase the French writer Madame de Staël, wisdom consists of “seeing the resemblance between things that differ, and difference between things which are alike.” I am afraid the MCQT may be preventing children at an early age from exercising their thinking processes to see the world with various different perspectives. Assessing things with only “the right and wrong” mindset may lead adults to resist the spirit of compromise.