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Davidson: 'Bubble tests' a relic in our era

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Cathy N. Davidson, a professor of English at Duke University, is the author of "Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn." This is from The Washington Post.

When Frederick Kelly invented the multiple-choice test in 1914, he was addressing a national crisis. The ranks of students attending secondary school had swollen from 200,000 in 1890 to more than 1.5 million as immigrants streamed onto American shores, and as new laws made two years of high school compulsory for everyone and not simply a desirable option for the college bound. World War I added to the problem, creating a teacher shortage with men fighting abroad and women working in factories at home.

The country needed to process students quickly and efficiently. If Henry Ford could turn out Model Ts "for the great multitude," surely there was an equivalent way, Kelly wrote in his dissertation at Kansas State Teachers College, to streamline schooling. What he came up with was the Kansas Silent Reading Test, sometimes called the "item-response" or "bubble" test.

Today, American public school students are still taking versions of Kelly's test. End-of-grade exams, required under the No Child Left Behind law, are modeled after his idea: Fill in the circles. There is only one right answer. Stop when time is called.

The Obama administration is undertaking an important overhaul of key parts of No Child Left Behind, the George W. Bush administration's signature education law. Perhaps that reform needs to go even further, to help our students escape Kelly's century-old invention.

The multiple-choice exam has had an impact far beyond the crisis that inspired it, and a reach and application far beyond what its inventor intended. From his papers at the University of Idaho, it is clear that Kelly didn't mean for standardized testing to become so widespread.

Although he argued for uniform ways of judging achievement, he also indicated that his test was intended to measure "lower-order thinking" among the masses. But this form of testing is now the gold standard for just about everything, from No Child Left Behind tests to college entrance exams to tests for graduate and professional schools.

We are saddled with an educational system that was designed for the industrial age, modeled on mass production and designed for efficiency, not for high standards. We aren't teaching and testing our students for responsible participation in the interactive digital age.

Even at IBM, the industrial-age behemoth that developed the time clock, 40 percent of employees now work at least partly at home in a system called "endeavor-based work." Timed tests? Right answer chosen from four preselected ones? What does that old form of education have to do with our children's future -- or, for that matter, their present?

A standard test question for young students today, dating back to Kelly's original exam, is which of four animals is a farm animal (a cow, tiger, rat or wolf). The same child who flubs this question can go home, Google "farm animals" and get 14.8 million results. What part of our educational system prepares a student to sort through and evaluate all those websites? Multiple-choice exams do not equip kids for either the information avalanche or the fine print that they encounter online every day.

In a decade of researching digital education, I have never heard an educator, parent or student say that the tests work well as teaching tools. Beyond the flaws of these rigid exams -- which do not measure complex, connected, interactive skills -- there is little room in the current curriculum for lessons about key questions that affect students' daily lives. Teaching kids about credibility, security, privacy, intellectual property and other bases of their online lives, after all, would take time away from the tested subjects.

We're facing a crisis in education today, much like Kelly faced in 1914. The U.S. high school completion rate is dropping slightly in real terms, and dramatically relative to other industrialized nations. We have teachers, out of self-preservation and to protect their schools and their students, teaching to a way of testing that was designed in the era of the Model T. Now is the time to rethink how we assess learning for the challenges of the digital world that lie ahead. It's not as simple as filling in the bubbles.


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