Multiple Choice Redux

| Wed Dec. 10, 2008 7:56 PM EST

MULTIPLE CHOICE REDUX....So what's the dope on Europeans and multiple choice tests? First up, my editor emailed this morning to weigh in:

I went to school in Germany and Italy, and I never had to break out a No. 2 pencil to fill in little circles until I took the GRE to come to the US. It may have changed a little, but by and large European education systems don't use them — lots of tests, and lots of questions, but generally of the fill-in-the-blank or provide-the-answer-here variety.

So: it sounds like European testing is more rigorous than in the U.S. But hold on. Robert Waldmann, who provoked the question in the first place, adds this:

The tradition in Italy is that most exams are oral (I am not kidding). Also students seem to have been taught to recite the 5 pages from the textbook which are most related to the question they are asked.

On US vs Italian high schools, obviously Italian high schools are more rigorous (I mean US high school is very exceptional as is the fact that most people in the US completed high school way back in the 20s). However, there was a comment by Italian students who were in the US on an exchange program that with multiple choice tests one has to think. Compared to learning by rote and reciting that is really true.

Hmmm. I think we need better agreement on just what "rigorous" means. If the Italian alternative to multiple choice is parroting back sections of a textbook, multiple choice starts to look pretty good.

In any case, there were lots of good comments to my original post from people who went to school in Europe, and the general consensus is that multiple choice tests are virtually unknown there. So here's another question: aside from standardized testing (i.e., NCLB-related stuff) how common are multiple choice tests in the United States these days? My schooling is now 30 or 40 years in the past, but my recollection is that there was very, very little of it in my extremely average suburban high school. It wasn't unknown, mind you, and I remember one of my English teachers saying that he liked to include at least a short MC section on his tests because you can't BS your way through it no matter how talented you are at that kind of thing, the way some people can with essay tests. But that was mostly the exception, not the rule. And yes, my math teachers all insisted that we show our work. (Much to my and my classmates' abiding dismay.)

Anyway, as long as we're on the subject, here's yet another tidbit. Via email and personal discussions, the one topic that seems to come up almost universally with teachers at the university level is writing. It's not so much that their kids are bad at math or reading or specific areas of knowledge (though there's always some of that, of course), but that they can't write. And they are convinced that this is getting worse, and that it's not just that they have over-rosy memories of students in the past. Anyone care to weigh in on this? Do high schools not require very much writing these days? Or what?