Astonishingly bad teaching materials

JISHOU, HUNAN — Multiple-choice tests may be one of the easiest kinds of tests to take, but they are the hardest kind for a teacher to write. This may explain why some MC tests are so astonishingly bad, such as the ones highlighted at Jonny Scaramanga’s blog, Leaving Fundamentalism.

Scaramanga’s blog includes MC questions from the Accelerated Christian Education (ACE) series, which are widely used among homeschoolers and so-called “schools” run by fundamentalist churches. Most violate every known principle of designing useful MC questions. Let me explain.

Most MC questions give three to five choices, from which the test-taker must choose the best. Good questions challenge the student’s knowledge and understanding by providing answers that seem plausible, but are not quite correct. Some choices are called “distractors,” because they are there to mislead an inattentive or ill-prepared student into choosing them.

Some teachers (like me) throw in a few joke choices from time to time, just to lighten things up. At my former school, there is a teacher surnamed Miron, which made for a perfect joke answer for a question involving subatomic particles: proton, electron, meson, miron.

But designing MC tests is a nightmare, especially if you want the test to mean something. You don’t want to make it too easy, by including one clearly correct answer and three dumb ones. Nor do you want to make it so impossible that only you, the teacher, can pass it. (See which: the Chinese college entrance examination. Well, every national exam in China. I’m not sure I could pass the English exams with flying colors.)

Whoever wrote the questions for the ACE tests clearly never attended teacher education classes. I’ll give a few examples, and then explain why they are poorly designed.

This one is I presume from a 4th grade vocabulary test. It’s too easy, because the answer repeats the question, and the other two choices are clearly throwaways. It’s just wasting the kid’s time.

In the same vein,

“Mr. Louis Pasteur” clearly refers to a person, regardless of why he is famous. One hopes a 4th grader knows a scientist is a person, and that bottles and airplanes are not.

This example from a 7th grade vocabulary test is not much better.

Uh, Alex, I’ll take Coast Guard for $200, please. Too easy! Instead of “coast” as a possible answer, the writer could have offered “shores,” “waterways” or “waters.” As it is, a student who never read the textbook could confidently get this question correct.

Onward to high school, and one would hope, more challenging fare. Nope.

Now, this would be a good example of a joke True/False question, if the teacher writing it was known to be either a football (I mean, soccer) or a baseball fan. (Do they even play baseball in Iceland?) But, I fear it is a serious question about the Viking colonies in North America. Again, it’s not really testing comprehension of the material, but the lowest level of knowledge. A better question would have been “T or F: Leif Ericsson was the first European to land in the Americas.”

Here’s another history question, and it’s designed a little better, but not much better.

We have only two decent choices here, because why would we call Mary “Crazy Elizabeth”? So, for the ill-informed student, it’s a coin flip, but if Queen Mary was persecuting people, I’d guess that was a pretty bloody affair, so I’d pick B. Of course, Mary could have been really happy about killing and imprisoning Protestants. If the question had included something about her mental state — “Queen Mary often laughed about throwing Protestants into the Tower of London” — then “Happy Mary” would be a good distractor.

12th grade literature question time. It’s a tough-y. You ready?

This one is not too bad, but the teacher writing it must have seen a lot of bad actors and wants to vent. I’m presuming it’s for a unit on Shakespeare, whose doomed protagonists do spend a lot of time talking to themselves, so the last choice is almost acceptable. But the question is presumably targeting vocabulary, and the first choice has a difficult word in it, so it’s gotta be the right answer. I’m sure of it!

Why should we care about these poorly designed tests and curricula? Because there are kids in the USA (and the UK) who go through the ACE system, all perfectly legally, and learn next to nothing. In some communities, vouchers allow parents to siphon off tax dollars from public schools, so their kids that learn such drivel. If one purpose of a democratic society is to educate its children, so that they become well-informed adults, then we need to be sure all educational systems meet some minimum criteria.

Like letting trained educators write the tests.

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