Sarah Schuhl, a consultant specializing in mathematics, has been a secondary mathematics teacher, high school instructional coach, and K–12 mathematics specialist for nearly 20 years.

What type of questions do we put on tests? Better yet, why?

While working recently with a high school mathematics team to write quality common assessments, I asked the teachers to bring in their previously used unit tests. They had already been giving common assessments for about three years as collaborative teams, so their unit assessments were in agreement. However, I noticed that every assessment item was multiple choice on every exam throughout the department.

When asking the algebra team about the reasoning behind only using multiple-choice items, I was told it was necessary in order to quickly analyze the data as a team and give results to students. When I asked what teachers or students did with the results, I was met with silence. When I asked how teachers and students learned from the common misconceptions shown on the exam—again, silence.

Finally, one member spoke up and said that to be honest, every question was multiple choice because it made it easy to grade. She added that the team agreed we could not change this aspect of the common assessments because they already had too many things to do. Grading tests couldn’t be something else to add to their plates.

This might sound familiar, and it certainly gave me pause. Teachers and students do need to get feedback quickly to learn from it, but should ease of grading be the reason why an assessment format is used? Does multiple choice always yield the most accurate information related to learning and common misconceptions for every standard?

It turns out that multiple-choice items are great! They serve a purpose and can be an effective way to assess standards, especially when the cognitive demand is lower. However, is it always the best method? In fact, is any one method always the best?

The Purpose of Common Assessments

Let’s consider how common assessments are used. To impact student learning, assessments provide evidence so…

  1. Teachers can analyze which instructional practices are effective.
  2. Teachers can analyze common student misconceptions that need to be addressed during future instruction or through a Tier 2 intervention, as well as to plan for extensions, if needed.
  3. Students can identify what they have learned and what they have not learned yet, ideally creating hope for students that they have learned something and to build on those successes.
  4. Students can be involved in making a plan for continued learning, as needed.

If teams and students are going to learn from the assessment evidence, what type of assessment items need to be given? Teams will need to ask, “Which type makes the most sense, given the complexity of the standard and the student learning evidence required?” Ideally, throughout the year, if not on any one test, students will experience different formats, each a good match to the standard being assessed.

Common assessment format choices:

  • Selected response: multiple choice, true/false, fill in the blank, matching, etc.
  • Constructed response: open-ended, complete a graphic organizer, show work when solving a mathematics problem, explanation, etc.
  • Performance assessment: speech, mile run, choir performance, art project, science lab, etc.

There is not one right or wrong way to assess students. However, ideally the teacher or team makes sure the minutes used in class for assessment can also serve an instructional purpose and promote student learning. They think about how students will use the assessments to learn from their errors which, in turn, influences the choice of assessment format needed.

I have yet to see multiple-choice-only exams give perfectly accurate data to teachers and students. Students guess well or give up and guess. Suddenly, they are told they have not learned the standard when, in fact, they have, or are told they have learned the standards when they were simply able to guess well. When selected response is balanced with constructed response items, the depth of student understanding is better recognized, and students are better able to identify and correct any misconceptions.

Alternatively, if every assessment is constructed response, too much time might be spent taking exams, and too few questions can be asked to determine student proficiency. Or, if the assessments are all performance based, teachers and students might not know if students have learned all of the knowledge and skills connected to each standard in a unit.

Odds are that your assessment practices will require a mixture of assessment formats. With that in mind, which assessment formats do you currently use when collecting evidence of student learning? Why? How do they promote continued student learning and grow your instructional practices? What might need to be modified? Let’s figure out how to make common assessments a learning tool for everyone.

Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)