George Lucas Educational Foundation
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I don’t need to tell you, but the United States is one of the most tested countries in the world, and the weapon of choice is the multiple-choice test. While many scorn them because they don't allow an opportunity for learning, multiple-choice tests have become a staple in the U.S. -- from college admissions to the popular television program Who Wants to be a Millionaire? Multiple-choice questions are an accepted institution. Yet we know little about where they come from. When researching materials for my book, Save Our Science, I stumbled across their not-so-nice origins.

Testing Testing 1-2-3

Most of us have experienced a multiple-choice test. Our children undergo them, you've certainly taken them, your parents probably did, and for some, even their grandparents had to endure them. All of us have given them the power to decide our destiny. But what most of us do not know is that multiple-choice tests resulted from an attempt to legitimize the field of psychology, with a dash of xenophobia and scientific racism. Stephen Jay Gould spells out the dark past of these tests in his aptly titled book The Mismeasure of Man. This highly recommended read reveals all the gory details of IQ testing. Gould explains that the development of IQ testing was used to identify feeble-mindedness in "unwanted" groups (usually determined by race or country of origin1).

Multiple-choice tests had their origin in World War I, when Dr. Robert Yerkes2, President of the American Psychological Association (APA), convinced the Army to commission them to test the intelligence of recruits.3,4 The Army's goal was to improve the efficiency of evaluating men by moving away from time-consuming written and oral examinations. Yerkes' motives were to make psychiatry a more scientific field and move it away from its affiliation with philosophy.

A total of 1.7 million recruits were tested, giving the multiple-choice test an air of legitimacy, but in the end, the Army found no value in the results. Yerkes omitted that part of the story when he sold this idea to educational testing outfits. The validity of the test was not questioned. The rest is an unfortunate history.

Without much of a whimper, the general public accepted these tests, which increased the esteem of the psychological profession and secured its services in education and industry. The multiple-choice test was here to stay. The College Entrance Exam Board's multiple-choice Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) became the standard in 1926 -- and there was no going back. By the 1930s, the multiple-choice tests and their offspring, true-false questions, were permanent fixtures in schools.

School testing en masse was perfectly timed with the boon of the growing public school system and the desire to track students. The motives of the system's architects were bankrupt, with an aspiration to create a pecking order among students that resembled the pecking order in society. Players like Lewis Terman, William Shockley and Robert Yerkes are part of science's darker history about fixed intelligence and biases against race and country of origin.1 Yet their legacy lives on today.

A Predicted Result

Multiple-choice tests are not catalysts for learning. They incite the bad habit of teaching to tests and not covering material that will not be evaluated. Ironically, Everett Franklin Lindquist, a creator of standardized tests, was a proponent of not teaching to tests. He wrote that "undue emphasis upon average test results, upon school-to-school and teacher-to-teacher comparisons . . . may cause the teacher . . . to neglect the interests of the pupils, and to be concerned instead with subject matter objectives and with higher average scores for their own sake."5,6

He was absolutely right! Teaching to test became a reality. And his brainchild morphed into the Frankenstein of our nation -- the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001. The tests were supposed to serve us; now we serve the tests.

For many teachers and instructors, multiple-choice testing precludes meaningful teaching. These tests were never designed to improve pedagogy. And, with such inauspicious beginnings, perhaps we should consider if this is a path we want to continue taking. Think about it. There won't be a test.


1Gould, S. J. The Mismeasure of Man. (W. W. Norton, 1981).
2Trewin, S. A. "History of Psychology: Robert Yerkes' Multiple-Choice Apparatus, 1913-1939." The American Journal of Psychology 120, 645-660 (2007).
3Kuklick, H. "Book Review: The Testing Movement and Its Founders." Science 237, 1358-1359 (11 September 1987).
4Sokal, M. M. Psychological Testing and American Society, 1890-1930. (Rutgers University Press, 1990).
5Scates, D. E. Chapter IV: The Improvement of Classroom Testing. Review of Educational Research 8, 523 (1938).
6Lindquist, E. "Changing Values in Educational Measurement." Educational Record 17, 64-81 (October 1936).

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Wowzers's picture
Wowzers offers online Game-based Math curriculum for Grades 3-8

The Smarter Balanced Common Core assessments are taking the multiple choice test and tweeking it somewhat, adding an adaptive feature that recognizes students incorrect and correct answers and adjusts the test to their ability levels.

Adaptive testing is nothing new (GRE, etc), but it is a new concept for many K12 students. To learn more about preparing for Smarter Balanced's Computer Adaptive testing features, check out this blog post -

Debora Wondercheck's picture
Debora Wondercheck
Executive Director, Founder of Arts & Learning Conservatory

Multiple choice is the best way to test someone atleast you get to know more about students knowledge , it is better to give students option this makes them less tense and the probability to get correct answer is more

Dr. Stephanie Slater's picture
Dr. Stephanie Slater
Director, Center for Astronomy & Physics Education Research

Very, very, very few people know how to write a multiple choice that provides meaningful insight into student thinking. Slightly fewer people know how to interpret results.

sandra's picture
audlt basic education

Numerous strategic goals within our current education community promote critical thinking as we prepare students to compete in a 21st century global society. The use of multiple-choice testing in prominent k-12 testing such as Standards of Learning, and state End of Grade testing does nothing to promote critical thinking or give weight its importance.

T.'s picture

But of COURSE it comes down to race and country of origin ... doesn't everything? *sigh*

Sonia Hernandez's picture
Sonia Hernandez
World history teacher from the Dominican Republic

While I do not condone the use of multiple choice testing I strongly believe that it is not the most efficient. I find project based assessments and document based questions to be more effective in evaluating my students. I feel that when I give these types of assessments I gain in depth understanding of my students' view point and understanding as oppose to just checking off correct or incorrect answers.

S. Powell's picture

Not a big fan of multiple choice, not as teacher nor was I a fan as a student many, many years ago. I find project base assessment a more effective tool for evaluating what my students have learned. Additionally this types of assessment provokes critical thinking on a higher cognitive level.
And you are a correct it is profitable to know the origin of things. Thanks for the info

Lisa's picture

I am doing research on the history and use of the multiple-choice test around the world. What is your support for the statement, "the United States is one of the most tested countries in the world"? I would love to see some statistics but haven't been able to track them down in my own research.

Trish's picture
7th gr LA teacher

I just had this discussion with some colleagues today! As VA just passed legislation to reduce the number of state assessments for 3rd, 5th, 6th, and 7th graders, we started talking about all of the problems with standardized tests. One issue we discussed was the multiple-choice format. We all agreed that the format isn't the best way to test students because they can guess and still get right answers. It's not a true test of what the students know. We also discussed the problems with the cultural biases that can exist with multiple-choice tests (a whole different topic than this one). I wish that tests had more writing to them so students would have to provide support and elaboration to show what they know about topics. Less room for guessing and getting correct answers, and more room to really demonstrate knowledge.

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