The success of ABC's Wagnerian quiz show, "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," has been blamed on widespread avarice, clever marketing and host Regis Philbin's resemblance to everyone's favorite cranky uncle. I think the show's appeal is both simpler and more significant than that. It is the ultimate acknowledgment of a rarely confessed truth at the heart of the national debate over how to make schools better:
We love multiple-choice questions.
Many researchers who have studied the effects of multiple-choice testing think we should feel more guilty about this cultural obsession than we do. Here is a sampling of expert opinion:
"With many of the multiple-choice questions having several 'correct' options in the eyes of creative thinkers, scores get depressed for children who see possibilities that are only visible to those with open minds"--James R. Delisle, Kent State University.
"The biggest problem with the multiple-choice format is that it is almost impossible to tap into really higher order thinking"--Gerald W. Bracey, Virginia-based research psychologist.
Yet no one can deny the thrill of matching wits with the test makers, trying to eliminate the distractors (what psychometricians call wrong answers) and identify the one factoid some befogged synapse in your cerebral cortex thinks is right.
Let's try one: Who invented the multiple-choice question?
(A) the Chinese
(B) Francis Bacon
(C) Frederick J. Kelly
(D) President Clinton's legal team
The quiz show staff would toss out this question as, among other things, too iffy. You might get partial credit if you said (A). There are some disputed accounts of multi-option questions in the Chinese imperial service examinations circa 210 BC. But the best answer is (C). Boston College professor of education and public policy George F. Madaus identifies Kelly as the Kansas State University psychologist who in 1914 came up with the idea as a way to give intelligence tests en masse.
Americans of the 20th century fiercely embraced the notion of advancement by quantifiable merit, using tests that could be quickly scored by low-paid clerks and, later, even lower-paid computers. Today we have multiple-choice questions in the PSAT, the SAT, the LSAT, the CAT, the DAT, the MAT, the MCAT, the ACT, the AP, the SAT9, the ITBS, the CTBS, the GRE, a large assortment of professional qualification tests and every magazine feature designed to test your ability to sustain a relationship or keep from dropping dead before age 50.
Most recently, multiple choice has dominated a new series of state achievement tests. In a few years, if the trend continues, most U.S. teenagers will be unable to graduate from high school without passing such tests. The jobs of their principals and many of their teachers will depend on the results. A small but growing movement of parents and teachers is trying to stop this, but is frustrated by experts such as Madaus and the University of Virginia's E. D. Hirsch, who say multiple-choice tests have validity if used properly.
Recently I spent a day in a cubicle at the Virginia Department of Education in Richmond, grinding down my pencil as I took most of the state's new Standards of Learning (SOL) tests that have caused much distress. They did not appear to me to be the memorization drills many critics say they are. Many of the questions required analysis, not memory, such as a fifth-grade science question asking the salinity of water in a jar based on the depth of a floating object or a geography question asking the coordinates of a city on a map.
Many states, including Virginia, are considering paying more to their testing contractors so they can have more of the essay questions that teachers prefer. Some are considering other ways to reduce the weight of the quick-answer format.
I wonder if the multiple-choice parts might go more smoothly if educators encouraged the sense of fun that goes with watching the TV quiz show. Working such puzzles is a pastime as American as hot dogs in the cafeteria and football on Friday nights. Accept it as the game it is and everyone might do better.
Multiple-choice tests are something to get out of the way, a quick check to assure taxpayers that they are getting something for their money. The less time spent on them, the more time teachers have to show their students that the most interesting questions, no matter what Regis says, have no final answers.
The writer covers schools for The Post's Metro desk.