One Simple Change

I hear a lot about our broken education system.  I’ve read many blogs describing the large-scale, invasive systematic changes that need to take place in order to “fix” education. These broad and overwhelming reforms are so massive and so dramatic I can’t imagine they have any hope of actually being implemented.  The change would be too drastic.  What I can imagine is a change that’s more “small-scale”. What would happen if we all agreed to change just one “little” thing? Could one simple change make any difference?

Here’s what I’m thinking. What if I decided, as a teacher, that my students would never again take another multiple choice test? What if my school or district decided to do the same thing? Could this one, simple change make a bit of difference in our student’s learning, critical thinking, and problem solving abilities?


In his book, Stop Stealing Dreams, author Seth Godin tells the story of Professor Fredrick J. Kelly. In 1914 our factories were in need of workers and we needed a quick, efficient means to process and educate the throngs of immigrants coming to the US. Professor Kelly invented the multiple choice test. He described it as “a test of lower order thinking for the lower orders. ” Just a few years later however, Kelly actually disowned the test he invented saying that “it was an appropriate method to test only a tiny portion of what is actually taught and should be abandoned“.  Did we abandon it?

Last May I had the opportunity to visit a couple of schools in Finland thanks to a generous invitation from my friend and colleague, Janet English. I only had one week in Finland – enough time to get a glimpse, but not enough time to observe and discern the real beauty of the Finnish Education system. Janet had six months to observe classes and talk with teachers and students. Thankfully, she shared her thoughts and observations in her own blog and a two part article for OECD Insights.

In her article, Janet shares the following…

“Where American teachers frequently administer multiple-choice tests for assessment, Finnish teachers require students to produce something that reflects their learning.” (US Teacher Gets Finnish Lesson in Optimizing Student Potential. Part 1)

“Teachers (in Finland) monitor student learning on a continuous basis so that assessment adds to student progress rather than detracting from it…Tests are not the main method of assessment so students do not spend substantial time taking tests or reviewing for them. Multiple-choice tests are generally not given because having students pick an answer from a list is not considered the best way to assess learning.” (US Teacher Gets Finnish Lesson in Optimizing Student Potential. Part 2)

So what would happen if we stopped giving our students multiple choice tests?

What makes Professor Kelly’s test so appealing is that it is so easy to administer and  score, especially since it can be graded electronically.  Will teachers thank you for taking away this form of assessment? Probably not at first. In fact, they might actually complain that forcing them to use other types of tests will take much more time to grade because their students would have to explain what they know rather than just picking from a list. What if, as a result, teachers started designing shorter tests or tested their students less frequently?  Would that be such a bad thing?

Eventually, as an alternative, teachers might have to resort to other methods of assessing their students’ learning.  Methods that could include having students create digital projects that provide evidence of their mastery of particular concepts and standards.

I wonder…Could one simple change, make any difference?


9 thoughts on “One Simple Change”

  1. Thanks Dennis. I am thinking about my assessment….we are learning particular skills and concepts in reading this unit and for the latest progress monitoring I’m having them write a short essay to demonstrate understanding of the concepts learned.

    I’m thinking of completely eliminating the multi choice portion of the next test… I will have to be very thoughtful about how to test them.

    Lately I’ve found my students struggle with multi choice because if the wrong answers aren’t blatantly wrong, they use logic and arguments to prove why any of the 4 answers could work!! How can I count that against them?

    How to we prepared students for the inevitable “high stakes” standardized multi choice tests they will face?

  2. While I am not sure that this one change will make a big difference, it certainly will start the discussion if anyone moves in this direction. I doubt that my district would be willing to take this leap, but I sure would be interested in following any district that does leap.

  3. One possibility: Rather than pick the correct answer on a multiple choice test, have them explain why the other answers are wrong.

  4. Love this post, DENnis, and am sharing it, and Janet’s writings as well, with my admin group. Thank you for an insightful look at the need for project based learning, writing, and discussion rather than the ‘simple’ multiple choice responses.

  5. I agree that change needs to begin on a small scale as in eliminating much of the multiple choice questions in assessments at the school level first. We are slowly doing just that with constructed responses being added. But students are struggling on different levels: 1) Knowing how to interpret the question to know how to answer it is challenging, 2) Many have difficulty with stamina. They would rather pick an answer from choices and be done with the test. 3) Students don’t know how to construct the response in an organized format. Much modeling and guiding must take place in order to train them to think in higher levels to be able to thoroughly show their learning because schools must still be held accountable for how students are learning. Unfortunately assessments are the only method used in evaluating effectiveness of schools and teachers.

  6. Janet – You say “Unfortunately assessments are the only method used in evaluating effectiveness of schools and teachers.” Don’t you mean “tests”? Assessment is a much broader term. There are many ways of assessing student learning. Letting students produce something – a project, a presentation, a video, a screencast – to show what they know. The flaw in the system is that the effectiveness of schools and teachers is not measured by assessments, but by tests.
    “A teacher who is paying attention — listening to students’ conversations, following their projects, reading their writing — will never need to administer a test. ” – Alfie Kohn

  7. I just had to administer the Smarter Balance Test which took place of the CST. For the math section there were no multiple choice answers. Students have to justify their answers and explain. This is also the new math called CMAST. Students are graded on a rubric. Higher level thinking is the focus and not just coming up with the answers, but to explain why they got the answer they did. Common Core is leading the way too.

  8. I agree that recall questioning multiple choice questioning needs to go away but all MC questions I have to disagree with. I teach in the high level education and these type of questions still rule standardized testing. The SAT, ACT, GRE and more. All of these tests have MC questions and we have to prepare our youth for these tests. I think that lower level MC questions need to go away but higher level thinking questions need to stay around. The common core tests have MC questions that have multiple answers and it makes the students think about what could be the right answer. Over and over again I hear the way to fix the education system is to have project base assessments. Projects are a good thing but it should not be the only thing for our students. We need to have a balance of traditional testing and project base learning so we can meet the needs of all our students.

  9. This Finnish system seems great on paper, but what about getting into and American college or university? The standardized testing system (ACT, SAT, etc.) is based on multiple choice test assessments. Our students need to practice taking these tests and what better way then to give them these types of test in school. As I tend to agree that multiple choice assessment type learning is not the best way to get our students to be critical thinkers, it is still important for them to do well on these tests because the education system in America requires it.
    So the real question, how do we change the American education system to students into good colleges without the stresses of scoring high on ACT and SAT type tests?

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