Are Multiple Choice Tests About To Flunk Out?

It has been 70 years since the first standardized exams crossed school desks. And in that time, the test-publishing industry has managed to weather attacks from teachers, administrators, and other reformers who consider the multiple-choice exams at best a nuisance and at worst creators of an educational caste system. Today the publishers of such elementary- and high-school exams as the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills, the Stanford Achievement Test, and the California Achievement Test rake in an estimated $500 million a year from test sales and scoring services.

Now the industry faces perhaps its biggest challenge. The school reform movement, with President Bush as its cheerleader-in-chief, is gaining momentum across the country. A key element of many plans is an overhaul of the way students are evaluated. As an alternative to standardized tests, reform-minded educators are advocating a very different sort of examination, called performance assessment. Instead of fill-in-the-blank questions, exams consist of essays, real-life math problems, and scientific experiments -- and they're graded by human teachers, not computers.

BIASED. This fall, the Vermont and Kentucky education departments adopted assessments in several grades statewide. And at least 24 other states, including California and Texas, are experimenting with the method. "The multiple-choice test's days are numbered," predicts Brown University education professor Theodore R. Sizer. "They tell us some things about kids, but not very much." Even without this challenge, providers of standardized tests were facing hard times. Feminists charge that the tests are biased: Young women traditionally score lower on college entrance exams even though they make better grades in high school. Teachers also have gripes. "The tests have such an exaggerated importance that teachers build their lesson plans around them," complains Cinthia H. Schuman, executive director for the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, a student advocacy group.

The push toward performance assessment has already cut into publishers' revenues. Kentucky, for example, used to spend $400,000 a year on testing every one of its 650,000 students. But now that the state has embraced assessment, only students in grades 4, 8, and 12 take multiple-choice tests. Demand for assessment provides an opening for small companies such as Advanced Systems in Measurement & Evaluation, a Dover (N. H.) publisher that helped Vermont and Kentucky develop its tests.

Traditional test publishers think this all may be just the latest educational fad. Performance assessments, they say, take more time to develop and grade, and so are far more costly than off-the-shelf tests. The cost of a multiple-choice test runs up to $4 per child, while a comprehensive assessment exam may cost as much as $100. Critics also charge that scoring is subject to human bias. For instance, teachers evaluate essays on the basis of such criteria as grammar, organization, and tone, and must be trained, like Olympic judges, to rate the work using uniform standards. "Once people realize the problems associated with assessment, the bandwagon will break down," says Michael H. Kean, a spokesman for CTB Macmillan/McGraw-Hill, a joint venture of Macmillan Inc. and the publisher of BUSINESS WEEK.

HURDLES. But the big test companies are hedging their bets. CTB Macmillan/McGraw-Hill, Houghton Mifflin's Riverside Publishing, and Harcourt Brace Jovanovich have launched their own versions of performance-assessment exams within the past 18 months. Assessment "is sufficiently important to develop a product to meet it," says Terence J. Heagney, assistant director of external affairs at Houghton Mifflin Co. The publishers won't discuss sales of their new products, but Maryland schools are trying out a McGraw-Hill test this year.

Performance assessment does face some hurdles. For one, under a federal program that funds remedial education for disadvantaged children, schools must give eligible young people tests that can be compared nationally. That effectively gives test publishers a captive market of more than 5 million children, or 10% of the elementary-school population. But policymakers in Washington are considering ending the requirement in 1993.

Test publishers have always gotten good marks in meeting such challenges. The next few years will determine if the industry will make the grade this time.


Below are excerpts from a performance assessment exam used in Vermont public

schools to test fourth graders.

DIRECTIONS: You have 90 minutes to work on a paper that tells about an

experience you had in the past. Read the writing task and think about the

subject. You may use a dictionary or thesaurus as you revise and edit your

rough draft.

WRITING TASK: Think about a time when you felt happy, scared, surprised, or

proud. Tell about it so the reader will understand what happened, who was

involved, how the experience made you feel, and why it was important to you.

Standardized, multiple-choice tests:

(a) Are used by schools so they can get federal aid for the needy.

(b) Force schools to design curriculums around them.

(c) Have been criticized as biased against minorities and females.

(d) All of the above.

Answer: (d).

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