[Viewpoint] Merits of multiple-choice testing

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[Viewpoint] Merits of multiple-choice testing

“Not everything is politics, but everything is political.”

Like the saying goes, in every aspect of society, there is a political element.

In Korea, nothing is more political than the education system, especially in the area of testing.

The Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education last week announced that it will require all elementary, middle and high schools to increase the portion of descriptive written responses in their test papers starting in the spring term. The office proposed the change of testing system “to help cultivate creative minds.”

In other words, it is saying the multiple-choice tests are making young minds memorize textbooks instead of nurturing creativity.

Yet many merits of multiple-choice tests should not be underestimated.

They provide an economical and objective way of assessing the proficiency levels of students.

They lessen the chances of ambiguity and disputes over answers, and they lessen the burden on teachers over scoring.

Plus, they offer quick results and standardized scores that can be used for comparison with other schools and regions.

Moreover, multiple-choice tests can be associated with politics on both domestic and international fronts.

They have close affinity with democracy. Democracy is about making choices. Multiple-choice tests are all about making choices.

When we go into voting booths, we are given a ballot with a multiple choice box, requiring us to put a check mark next to the candidate of our choice.

History also reveals a correlation with democracy and multiple-choice tests. The test system was developed in the United States, who claims that it is a partner of democracy.

American psychologist Edward Lee Thorndike of Columbia University created Alpha and Beta tests, ancestors to multiple-choice questions, to assess the intelligence of military recruits during World War I.

His testing method, championing active, incremental and scientific learning, helped to pioneer an advanced progressive educational movement in North America in the 1930s and ’40s.

The multiple-choice format provided an effective assessment tool in the age of populism and equality.

It probably would have been cast aside if education was accessible to only a small minority.

During the age of Socrates, pupils were evaluated through debate and give-and-take discussion with teachers.

Cambridge University in Britain was first to introduce a written test in 1792 after a long tradition of verbal testing.

The Scholastic Aptitude Test, a standardized test for college admissions in the U.S. since 1926, has helped to open college doors to aspiring students based on their academic proficiency regardless of their sex, background and race.

Such large-scale testing formats remain popular in the U.S. today. More than 500 million multiple-choice question tests are printed every year.

The system grew under former President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act, a 2002 education reform measure that called for every state to set standards on reading and math and test students from grades three through eight every year to measure their annual progress.

The goal of the law was to upgrade the academic standards of American students that have been hovering behind their peers in other advanced countries.

But the act has been most unpopular with teachers, who complain that the program puts emphasis on teaching students merely how to get good scores on standardized exams.

Educational experts also point out that the multiple-choice format is an antiquated system that falls short of reflecting intelligence required to meet the latest education standards.

Still, America by and large will likely remain devoted to the large-scale testing method to maintain national competitiveness.

The Seoul education authorities have come to put stress on written responses to make up for the shortcomings of multiple-choice testing in assessing problem-solving and creative reasoning.

Descriptive answers will likely help enhance educational standards. But the merits of the multiple-choice format also must be understood and developed.

Using his classic definition of politics, Harold Lasswell titled his book “Who Gets What, When and How.”

In the politics of testing, the new system clearly will favor students with descriptive literary skills and good handwriting.

How will people react?

Parents will now likely have to find new private tutors to hone those skills.

*The writer is a senior editor on intelligence at JoongAng Sunday.

by Kim Whan-yung
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