A Multiple Choice for Parents: How do you want your child’s learning to be measured?

When parents get to leaf through the test items by which their children are sorted and ranked against each other- or when they sit down and endure an hour or two of taking the actual tests their children take-many are struck by how ambiguous the questions are, and how trivial and arbitrary as a summary of learning. What follows is a sampling of such items, followed, for contrast, with two exhibition questions from Essential schools, and finally with a question intended to provoke further thought about what we teach and what we measure:

Was the infantry invasion of Japan a viable alternative to the use of the atomic bomb to end World War II? If so, why? If not, why not?
A. Yes; transport ships were available in sufficient numbers. B. Yes; island defenses in Japan were minimal. C. No; estimated casualties would have been much greater. D. No; Japan was on the verge of having an atomic bomb.

[Released by an association of test publishers as an example of measuring “higher order thinking”That is, analysis, synthesis, evaluation]

To prosper is to A. thrive B. wander C. seek D. adapt

Decide if one of the underlined words is spelled wrong or if there is no mistake:

A. A beray is a French cap. B. Little rain falls in arid regions. C. The squirrel ran across the grassy knoll. D. No mistake

[Adapted from the eighth-grade level of a recently revised test widely used by districts]

The famous author won the ______________ several times.
A. pulitzer Prize B. pulitzer prize C. Pulitzer prize D. Pulitzer Prize

Which number sentence means, “Four times a number is thirty-six minus eight”?
A. n = 4(36 – 8) B. 4n – 8 = 36 C. 4n – 36 = 8 D. 4 x 8n = 36 E. not here

Hal deposited $500 in a savings account that pays 8% interest per year, payable every six months. How much will Hal have in his account at the end of six months?
A. $270 B. $540 C. $530 D. $520 E. not here

Randy is a student in ______________ .
A. high school B. High school C. High School D. high School
[Adapted from a tenth-grade test by the same publisher]

An architect’s most important tools are his
A. pencil and paper B. buildings C. ideas D. bricks

[Elementary reading item cited by Deborah Meier in “Why Reading Tests Don’t Test Reading,” Dissent, Fall 1981, pp. 457-66]

The current turmoil between the U.S. and Iraq is one more in a series of foreign policy challenges in United States history. Present the committee with three examples of other crises-one from the eighteenth century, one from the nineteenth, and one from the twentieth-that had a major impact on national or international events in its historical era. Also identify three literary or other artistic works that in some way derive from or comment on each crisis, and explain how they do so. Finally, explain how developments in science or technology in that time contributed to either heightening or defusing the crisis. [From an Essential school’s year-end 10th grade exhibition before a panel of teachers, peers, and community residents. Scored on content knowledge, communication skills, and critical “habits of mind”]

Does ethnicity and education status among City Heights women create a barrier around knowledge about breast cancer early warning signs and prevention options?

[From the Senior Project essential question framed by Hai Pham, a student at Hoover High School in San Diego]

Familiarity with Henry IV, Part II is likely to be of great importance in:

A. planning a corporate takeover B evaluating budget cuts at the Department of Education C. initiating a medical liability suit D. writing an impressive job resume E. taking a test on “What Do Our Seventeen-Year-Olds Know.”

[From “What Do Our Forty-Seven-Year-Olds Know?” in Benjamin Barber, An Aristocracy of Everyone (Oxford University Press, 1992)]