Narrow testing? It's the American way

16th June 2006 at 01:00
It's Friday lunchtime in the staffroom. My colleagues discuss the new multiple-choice science GCSE, speaking with the wry equanimity I've come to expect from the British. The kids will prefer a 'multiple guess' format, they say. It will make it easier to mark. May not be great for actually teaching the subject, mind. I want to scream, "This standardised, computerised trash will destroy British education!"

My colleagues would understand if I did. They know I am American and, as such, a survivor of 18 years of education in a country addicted to multiple-choice tests. Throughout primary and secondary school, I endured a barrage of computer-scored, multiple-choice tests. I was a bright, curious student, but according to standardised tests I wasn't. According to the test results, I should abandon all academic and professional ambitions and hope to win the lottery.

So, after graduating with a master's from Harvard and becoming a teacher, I vowed never to "teach to a test". To this end, I opted to teach English in the private sector, where students are not required to pass state exams.

Naturally, when I came to England as an exchange teacher at an independent school in Wiltshire, I worried that public exams would impinge on my ability to teach English. However, I have found the current GCSE and A-level exams foster critical thinking, analytical writing, and problem-solving skills. Open-ended questions ensure that students can express what they know about a subject in varied contexts. Moreover, the coursework component guarantees accountability for class time and also compensates for a "bad test day" or test anxiety.

American assessments are typically norm-referenced (where students are ranked on a Bell curve), multiple-choice, and scored by computers rather than teachers. Nevertheless, and even amid pressure for schools to hit government test targets, some small changes have been made to multiple-choice formats. For example, Maine and Nebraska's state achievement tests have introduced "constructed response" sections. Even the behemoth Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), a multiple-choice college entrance exam taken by more than 2 million American pupils each year, has added an essay component.

Why, then, is England moving towards the very standardised tests that Americans are starting to reject? Are American students learning more than English ones? Not according to the Programme for International Student Assessment (2000), which suggests UK 15-year-olds are much better than US peers at analytical thinking, which is fundamental to literacy.

So what is prompting the shift to multiple-choice exams here? Could it be cash? There's a lot of money to be made in testing, something we Americans have known since the advent of the Educational Testing Service (ETS) in 1947. A nonprofit organisation, ETS holds a virtual monopoly on standardised testing in America, Perhaps, in the wake of recently announced budget cuts for 2008, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority wants to cut marking costs. Using multiple-choice tests will do this: just ask ETS.

Can you imagine the new English language GCSE - which last week included the writing prompt, "Describe yourself" - as a multiple-choice test? Proponents of the new science GCSE will argue that science is a more objective discipline than English. However, any real learning involves inquiry and analysis - processes that do not fit neatly into the new 20 to 30-minute science GCSE.

As Fair Test, an American educational research group, cautions, "When schools view multiple-choice tests as important, they often narrow their curriculum to cover only what is in the exams."

In my classroom, I have posted a quotation from the French philosopher, Roland Barthes: "Literature is the question minus the answer." When it comes to measuring what students know, we'd do well to remember that their best answers can only stem from good questions.

Elizabeth Jackson has been on a Fulbright exchange at Warminster school.

She will return to Meadowbrook school in Boston, Massachusetts, in the autumn

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