Science lite

Science testing is often done badly, says this Education Week article. It gives examples of questions that telegraph the correct answer, testing students’ ability to read and use common sense, rather than science knowledge. Here’s my favorite example:

Some states avoid directly testing whether students have learned meaningful foundation knowledge, aiming instead to measure how well students “relate and use knowledge.” Testing on use of knowledge, rather than possession of knowledge, can lead to test items that are poorly grounded in the content of science, as this writing prompt from an 8th grade state assessment illustrates:

Your school’s Academic Team has chosen Archimedes as its mascot, and for the team shirt you have created a new symbol to represent Archimedes and his discoveries. The team members have asked you to attend their next meeting to inform them about your symbol. Write a speech to read to the team members, which describes and explains your symbol and tells why it is appropriate for the team.

Perhaps designing an Archimedes logo for a shirt does relate and use knowledge of Archimedes, but it also tends to treat science as a “scenic” background rather than a central element of the test. Another example from a 5th grade assessment asks students to measure the length of a caterpillar in a picture. The item tests only the skill of measuring, not knowledge about the living organism or its development.

What about kids who aren’t good at design, drawing or writing but know a lot about Archimedes?

Here’s another one:

Students may also divine the correct answer on a test item by responding to differences in writing style. In the example below, answer D is the only one written with a qualification (“… that it could contain”) and is also the wordiest answer:

The statement that the relative humidity is 50 percent means that

A. The chance of rain is 50 percent.
B. The atmosphere contains 50 kilograms of water per cubic kilometer.
C. The clouds contain 50 grams of water per liter.
D. The atmosphere contains 50 percent of the amount of water that it could contain at its present temperature.

Even if students don’t know the correct answer, they may sense that more effort went into writing answer choice D, and that the writing seems more cautious and scientific. As a result, students may be drawn to the correct answer for reasons unrelated to knowledge of science.

My science knowledge is — let’s say limited — but I could get guess the right answer to every question.

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  1. (don’t mean to be spamming your comments this morning!)

    When I got my drivers license, the “longest answer in the multiple choice” rule was the sure rule for passing the test. Way back then, I thought it was just poor test writing on their part; now I’m not so sure.

  2. I remember a whole lot of test questions like this. I usually got the subject down pat long before the test, but through high school, even when I didn’t care to study a topic at all, I still passed multiple-choice tests, and sometimes even got A’s. Bad news, this didn’t work too well in college, and I had to learn to really study… This was 30 years ago – but it sounds like the testwriters still haven’t learned.

  3. I’ve often thought that multiple-choice test writers have a “tell” – like cardplayers – that make the correct answer obvious.

  4. I have never, ever put a multiple-choice question on a test in any of my classes. I want problem-solvers, not answer-guessers.

  5. I totally know what you mean, and yet I only WISH my students could figure out (correct) answers based on subtle clues in the writing style of the questions! Sure would make the tests less worrisome! I think the ability to do that is what makes someone a “good test-taker” – I was one, and probably tested above my level of knowledge… but unfortunately it seems that most of my students test below their level of knowledge… I guess that’s what they mean when they advise us to “teach the genre called ‘test.'”

  6. I have to agree with markm: test writers either haven’t learned anything in the 30+ years that I’ve been taking standardized tests, or else the clues are a deliberate part of the test. The longest and most complex answer is almost always the correct one, duh!

    I wonder how much the test prep companies are earning for revealing this one little testing tidbit to their customers? And how about the large number of test takers too dumb to figure this out on their own…?

  7. Good item writers don’t do this. Good item writers can write multiple-choice tests that get at students’ conceptions or misconceptions about physics (David Hestenes’ “Force Concept Inventory”). It’s a myth that multiple choice questions can’t test higher level thinking. But it’s a fact that the items written by someone who believes they only test recall, do only test recall.

  8. I actually gave a final that was mostly multiple choice (because I had to turn around all the students final grades almost immediately). Writing the wrong answers was a lot of fun, and anyone who assumed that the longest answers would be disproportionately likely to be correct would score pretty close to zero. (Yes, guessing wrong was worth negative points.)

    Guessing was also harder because all of my multiple choice questions were of the “select all that apply” variety, with “none of the above” consistently as the final chioce.

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