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NCLB and Multiple Choice Exams in College Courses

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Bianca Easterly
September 13, 2016

For many U.S. college instructors, there is a laundry list of decisions that need to be made when designing (or updating) a course. For those of us who teach large-enrollment core and introductory courses, the method by which we will evaluate student learning is usually quite simple – multiple choice examinations. According to the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, instead of assigning other types of summative assessment techniques such as essays, presentations and oral examinations (as other economically advanced countries do), the U.S. is the only nation that primarily relies on multiple choice exams.

Multiple choice exams are the preferred assessment method for instructors because compared to the other techniques, they are fairly easy to produce (many textbooks come with test banks already stocked with exam questions so instructors don’t have to write them) and to grade (Scantron machines and testing centers make it possible to score many exams in mere minutes). And thanks to No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), legislation passed during the Bush administration in 2002 designed to hold schools accountable for students’ performance, many of today’s college students have spent most of their academic careers taking standardized tests and they’ve learned to see it as the only reliable means of gauging material comprehension. Unmistakably, instructors benefit from the simplicity and ease of creating, administering and grading multiple choice exams and students may be conditioned to prefer them. But does this particularly type of assessment sufficiently prepare students for the workforce?

The pervasiveness of multiple choice exams in college courses stems from NCLB requirement that students as early as the third grade must sit for annual, high-stakes, standardized testing in subjects such as English language arts, science and mathematics until 12th grade. In an attempt to raise the performance of disadvantage students to their more affluent counterparts, the law mandated that schools had to get all of their students to a certain proficiency level in English and math by 2014 according to a standard on which each state defined and measured. Schools that continually missed their target faced a series of punishments including school closure, state intervention, charter school conversion or withholding of 10 percent of their Title I money. To ensure achievement, teachers had no choice but to devote significant amounts of classroom time to “teaching the test” which, as former U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan described as “sucking the oxygen out of public school classrooms.”

In the absence of regular opportunities to develop critical or higher order thinking, writing or problem-solving skills, as Steven C. Ward, a professor of sociology at Western Connecticut State University, explains in his article, “No Child Left Behind Goes to College” students under NCLB are “the walking zombies of intensified testing and continuous assessment in their high schools where most of the joys of inquiry and learning have been eliminated from their curriculum.” As a result, students entering college today are conditioned to believe that test results are the only objective measure of knowledge. I can personally attest to the fact that administering multiple choice exams result in significantly less conversation with students who typically deem the most well-defined and comment filled rubric as subjective but unconditionally accept multiple choice exam instruments and the scores they earn without question.


Image Source: New Republic

One of the major consequences of the “multiple choice generation,” as The Guardian opinion writer Erika L. Sánchez calls the NCLB era for students, is that students graduate college without the skills needed to be marketable in today’s workforce. A study conducted by the American Association of Colleges and Universities finds that while 65 percent of college graduates believe they are proficient in writing, far fewer employers (27 percent) agree that today’s recent graduate possess the necessary written communication skills that are vital to their professional success. Of the 63,924 managers surveyed by Payscale to assess skills gaps of this year’s graduates, 60 percent of managers claim that new graduates seeking employment within their organization lacked critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

In 2015, the Obama administration replaced NCLB with Every Student Succeeds Act with the goal of providing a more flexible approach to student assessment and school accountability. States now have the discretion to decide how they assess students (e.g., one single assessment or smaller assessments throughout the year) and the kind of measurement instrument they’d like to use. Of course multiple choice exams will continue to be a useful tool for educators to evaluate student learning. However, the lessons learned from NCLB may lead colleges and universities to consider alternative methods to ensure that students are sufficiently prepared for the competitive job market. These methods could include internships, partnerships with corporations to advance job relevant skills and adjustments to course curriculum based on local employment demands.

Author: Bianca Easterly, Ph.D., MPA is an assistant professor in the department of political science at Lamar University. Dr. Easterly teaches undergraduate political science courses and graduate seminars in the Master of Public Administration program. She can be reached at [email protected].

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2 Responses to NCLB and Multiple Choice Exams in College Courses

  1. Mark Clark, PhD Reply

    September 14, 2016 at 11:37 am

    Multiple choice and it’s variations create heuristic structures and pathways wherein dendrites prevent critical thinking and logical reasoning (Simon, 1993).

    In other words, multiple choice creates artificial intelligence. Herb Simon won the Nobel for “bounded rationality” and it impacts something we call application specific integrated circuits or artificial intelligence.

    10 years data and experience at community college and university show we not producing “knowledge, problem solving and opportunity discovery skills, or judgment” at any level of American education beyond Kindergarten or Learn-to-swim programs.

    People are not machinations so don’t train them like machines. Read “How To Get What You Want With Your College Degree” by Axiom Academy.

  2. Marvin D. Brown, MPA Reply

    September 13, 2016 at 6:55 pm

    Thank you for the very interesting article Dr. Easterly. The lack of writing and reasoning skills for recent college graduates has been lamented for several years. It brings to mind the adage that the more things change; the more they stay the same.

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