Saturday, March 15, 2014

Salman Rushdie Is Wrong! Multiple Choice Tests Are NOT 'Stupid'!

Photo: Mutiple choice test form for study

Last night, on a segment of  HBOs' Real Time on which the new changes in the SAT were being discussed, I was confounded to see and hear Salman Rushdie blurt out: "The SAT is a stupid test because multiple choice questions are stupid!"

While Andrew Sullivan and Bill Maher tried to steer him into a more sober perspective, it was clear it was a hopeless task. The SAT was mostly multiple choice, hence was 'stupid'. I have news for Rushdie: for making such a remark he is stupid.

We are talking of a test that in many cases is needed as a discriminator, given relatively few places are available in relation to the tens of thousands of applications received. This was also the point made in a New York Times magazine piece on the SAT last Sunday, but from the more comprehensive perspective that we cannot just shelve the test as some universities, i.e. Wake Forest, have done.  As one administrator noted, you can say what you will, but with limited spaces you still need a way to differentiate by outside independent testing, and hence the process is called 'differentiation'.

The basis here is analogous to discerning the quality of college grads (using the GRE, say for eligibility for grad school), only now we are looking at high school grads wanting to attend an 'elite' college. How do I know (say as an admissions officer), that an "honor roll"  HS grad from Podunk High in Mayberry, NC is in the same league as one from Stuyvesant High in NYC? They both show a 97% average, but are they really the same and do both deserve entrance into Yale?  The only way to really tell is to apply an independent assessment, and this is exactly where the SAT comes in. In a similar way, one of the only ways to differentiate the college grads is to use the GRE- since many may have attended schools that are mired in grade inflation.

Next: the best way to achieve this differentiating, given one is assessing MILLIONS, is the multiple choice aptitude test (or achievement test, as is generally the case now).  It is simply impractical and infeasible to do painstaking evaluation for actual worked out "solutions",  say to math problems, given the inefficiency and laborious,  time intensive nature of such a task.  In addition, the MC test lends itself to machine marking which means the results are obtained in an expeditious manner and the potential college attendees aren't kept in limbo for months.

My point here is that Rushdie is way off base, and indeed, multiple choice tests can be excellent if prepared using intelligent parameters, criteria. To therefore write off all such tests as 'stupid' is not only ignorant but discloses an alarming lack of awareness in a person whose writings I had long respected.

Obviously, however, multiple choice testing is not appropriate for all conditions! For example, when I taught space physics and calculus physics I NEVER ever used such tests. The student was required to work out a given problem in detail, say:

 A proton moves in a uniform electric and magnetic field, with fields given by:

E = 10 V/m (x^)

B = 0.0001 T (z^)

where '^' denotes vector direction.

a) Find the gyrofrequency and the gyro-radius

b) Find the proton's E X B drift speed

The student would then hand in roughly one and a half pages to show his approaches, techniques, how he (or she) obtained the respective solutions, and I would award marks accordingly.  But though the marking was time consuming, I'd only be grading perhaps 20 papers.  Meanwhile, an SAT patterned along an analogous format would require vastly more human labor. Machines wouldn't be able to parse subjective types of response, say if the student wrote:

a = (-r^) (v_perp^)^2/ r

as a "centrifugal" acceleration instead of a centripetal one. And so, there'd have to be extended discussions on what to allow and what not to allow in the scoring regimen.  Based on such vast manpower needs, I could see the ETS going bankrupt after just one examination cycle.

Sullivan also pointed out the 11-plus, or "common entrance examination" which btw, is still used in Barbados. Given the island only has a relatively small number of places to offer in its elite secondary schools, then the five thousand or so primary school students who take the test each year are differentiated based upon multiple choice tests, though yes there is an essay section. Manpower for marking those is generally achieved by having all the secondary school teachers come in and mark the required papers using a defined marking scheme issued by the Ministry of Education. However, somehow I don't see the ETS having millions of secondary school teachers come in and mark any kind of long form SATs, apart from the security issues.

The fact then is irrespective of whatever changes are made to the SAT they won't remove the multiple choice basis, which would be ludicrous and counterproductive. Rushdie ought to have thought that out more.  Having said that, what can be done is to remove the need to apply 'tricks' to save time and gain a higher score. In this regard, all MC questions or problems ought to have such criteria applicable that there are NO short cuts one can take apart from say using plain old common sense.

In this way the advantage of SAT prep tutorials can be removed, or at least one hopes! (Though some amount of practice is always beneficial and as I noted in an earlier post, the ETS plans to provide that with online practice tests.)

The multiple choice format then is here to stay, certainly at the level of assessing students coming out of high schools (or colleges, for the GRE). We need objective ways to ensure educational attainment that can be easily compared - 'apples to apples'. Like it or not, the multiple choice format is the best we have now given the numbers entering college, or grad school, say after the first degree.

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