• Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.


Math Geek Mom: Multiple Choice and the Future

Truly high stakes tests.

June 20, 2013

I often pose questions in my statistics class that ask about the probability of randomly choosing a correct answer from a list of possible answers on a multiple choice test. I ask the students to figure out what the chance is that a correct answer will be chosen randomly. Further, I sometimes ask students to use the Chi-square distribution to decide if correct options found from all possible answers are equally represented on a multiple choice exam. I found myself thinking of these two types of exam questions recently when I learned of the angst many parents are feeling about a new approach to standardized testing in Ohio. Called the “Third Grade Reading Guarantee,” it promises to retain students in the third grade who demonstrate that they are not yet reading at the correct grade level. Of course, such a demonstration would take place through standardized, multiple choice exams, the kind of exam that is the topic of so much discussion in my statistics courses.

As my daughter’s school year recently drew to a close, I found myself chatting with several other mothers. These few mothers had been my companions on the journey of helping our children navigate the primary grades, and some of them had younger children who were still in the early years of elementary school. As they talked, I became aware of a reality to which I had been blissfully ignorant. It seems that Ohio, along with twelve other states, has instituted a rule requiring that third graders pass a required reading proficiency test. Those that are not reading at grade level (and at least one of the mothers feared this would be the cases for one of her own children) will be held back until they can demonstrate that they are. Hearing about this approach, I suddenly gained new insight into an intensive reading program that my daughter’s school instituted this past year. A little research showed me that these women were telling me the truth. The general premise is that by third grade, children should be reading to learn, not learning to read.

It was not long until I learned that such high-stakes exams are being proposed as a way to evaluate teachers throughout Ohio, although it was also found that there is little relationship between teacher’s pay (which is based largely on years of service) and the outcomes of this test. I also began to wonder if this was an approach that would prepare my future students most effectively. After all, I often teach students who come to me with gaps in their high school preparation. Do high-stakes multiple choice exams truly prepare students most effectively for the kind of thinking we ask for in college level classes?

Immediately, two people come to mind. The first is a young girl I know who does well in a well-respected school, usually making the honor roll, even though standardized multiple choice exams say that she should be struggling to just survive. The other is my sister, who was almost finished with college before she visited a doctor who diagnosed her with a learning disability (as such learning differences were once refered to). He said that this disability made it very hard for her to take multiple choice exams. The doctor told her that he was “surprised that she made it through high school, never mind to the second semester of her senior year in college.” Despite this learning difference, she went on to graduate with a very difficult, technical major from a large state university and then to earn a Master’s Degree before working in a management position for an organization that works with those who struggle with disabilities of various forms. She saw herself as a role model for the people with whom she worked.

I am left wondering if there is a better way to judge “value added” in the classroom, and am especially wondering if there is a way to measure such a value that does not include multiple choice exams. Does anyone have any ideas, especially those who live in or are from Ohio, which seems to be very enamored with such tests at the moment?



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