Decreasing Open-Ended Questions Will Decrease Testing Rigor and Therefore Teaching Rigor

An article in the Seattle Times reports that state leaders are looking for ways to decrease the costs associated with administering their state test. According to the editorialized article, the “savings would come primarily from chopping the number of open-ended, thought-provoking questions and delaying some extra features.” Although I object to sullying supposedly objective news reporting with opinion, I happen to agree with the Associated Press that open-ended questions “are time-consuming and costly to grade but are designed to determine how well students understand the material.”

Our tests determine what we teach. That’s one of the main tenets of backwards-planning. We decide which enduring understandings, essential questions, and knowledge/skills we want our students to internalize, and then we design tests that measure their internalization of the end vision.

But in order to succeed within the 21st century knowledge and information economy and in order to be leaders in solving the major crises of our time, students need to be able to do more than bubble in an answer. In multiple-choice questions, the correct answer is always right there on the page, usually hidden among only three other answer choices. Students have a 25% chance of guessing correctly.

Eliminating more rigorous, open-ended questions will very likely decrease the rigor of state tests, and, by the transitive property, decrease the rigor of teaching.

Yes, it’s important to acknowledge that the issue is not simply binary. Multiple-choice does not necessarily equal rigorous, just as open-ended does not necessary equal easy. The very challenging multiple-choice questions from my high school AP tests come to mind, just as a teacher could easily ask “What is the capital of our country?” in an open-ended fashion.

However, any test maker knows that the higher you move up Bloom’s Taxonomy into more rigorous thinking (e.g., analysis, synthesis, and evaluation), the more difficult it is authentically assess students without using open-ended questions. Even college professors and CEOs can attest to the fact that being able to bubble in a correct answer does not mean that students are prepared for success in life beyond high school.

One of the key issues here is alignment. What is our end vision for K-12 public education? What knowledge, skills, and mindsets do children need to graduate with in order to be prepared for life beyond school? Is the vision comprehensive enough? Once we have the vision, we can then ask: Do our assessments measure our vision? Then we can go about the fun business of aligning our instruction (and the very structure of our classrooms and schools) with our assessments.

As a side note, I think it’s also important to question why for-profit companies dominate the testing industry. Why are states dishing out millions of dollars to companies who pay their CEOs upwards of $19,000,000? What a racket.

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