The One Thing I Don’t Do When I’m Assessing Students

I’ve now taught almost 11 years, starting in the throes of overtesting and overstandardizing. I’ve given multiple forms of assessments over different periods of time. I’ve taught all of the middle school grades and tutored lower and higher grades. I’ve taken my own set of exams for teacher certifications, most of them different from the quizzes for one and only one specific reason.

I don’t do multiple choice quizzes.

I can’t stand multiple choice quizzes. A-B-C-D doesn’t work for J-O-S-E. One of my admins used to call multiple-choice a skill. The idea seems to be that being able to make the right choice takes a skill that some have and some don’t. This frame suggests that students should have to learn how to make choices when they’re presented in a predetermined format. Halfway between giggling and scoffing, I couldn’t get over the idea that having four and only four choices actually makes it easier, not harder, to pretend expertise. I suppose if a student knows what they’re doing, then they have a high probability of getting the answer correct, especially in a subject like math.

But even then, I’m less interested in their ability to choose (and eliminate choices) and more interested in their thought process. I’m interested in seeing how they approach the math in front of them and how they arrive at their conclusions. This way, we can open up a conversation both as a class and as individual students. Also, because they’re going to see so many multiple-choice questions elsewhere, I can more readily address misconceptions if I see their answers and their reasoning immediately.

I’ve also found that, while easier to grade, multiple-choice questions don’t make me a better teacher. Open-ended questions do.

I’ve even found that we don’t need to always use “why” and “how” to start an open-ended question. We can ask, “what’s the difference between ____ and _____?” or “what makes _______ do this?” My classroom is already structured for whole-class and table discussions, so my quizzes don’t just assess for their mathematical knowledge, but also their listening and speaking skills within my class.

Multiple choice questions assume that the answer is already out there; open-ended assumes that the mathematician will arrive at the answer in a thoughtful way.

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