On multiple choice tests

They should go. They are an insult to Intelligence, except when played with as parlor games. And something else must go at the same time; I mean the form of such tests. Every man of education ought to take a solemn vow that he will never ‘check’ anything on a printed list. Students should not be asked to pass so-called objective examinations, which are the kind composed of mimeographed questions to be marked Yes or No, or to be solved by matching the right name with a definition. I have kept track for some ten years of the effect of such tests upon the upper half of each class. The best men go down one grade and the next best go up. It is not hard to see why. The second-rate do well in school and in life because of their ability to grasp what is accepted and conventional, the ‘ropes’ of the subject. They become pillars of society and I have no quarrel with them. But first-rate men are rarer and equally indispensable. They see into situations quickly, and with the fresh, clear eye of Intelligence, and they must be encouraged to continue. To them, a ready-made question is an obstacle. It paralyzes thought by cutting off all connections but one. Or else it sets them thinking and doubting whether in that form any possible answers really fits. Their minds have finer adjustments, more imagination, which the test deliberately penalizes as encumbrances. This basic difficulty occurs no matter how carefully the questions are drafted and how extensive their coverage. I sat and worked on a committee that prepared objective questions in history for the so-called Graduate Record Examination, which is now widely used to test college seniors’ readiness for graduate work. In committee, it was revealing to see how a question that seemed ‘foolproof’ and ‘obvious’ to two or three men, thoroughly trained in their field, struck others of the same caliber as ‘ambiguous’ or ‘misleading.’ Add modifiers and you can make the question so unwieldy that it can hardly be grasped at one reading; simplify and you reduce it to bare common fact. Neither extreme, moreover, brings anything out of the student’s mind; yet the power to relate, to think up, to see into, is what distinguishes the first rank from the second in all walks of life. The results of the Graduate examination no doubt correlate very satisfactorily with other indices, but they scarcely give data for the most needful kind of diagnosis. Nor have they ever been tried on the masters of the profession, which would be the test of tests, provided running comments were allowed. When one courageous man proposed just this at an institution that thrives on endless testing, the idea was dismissed as a joke in poor taste.

Jacques Barzun, The House of Intellect, pp. 300-302.


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