Folwell Dunbar
Dunbar, here hamming it up as leader of a workshop for teachers, concedes that early in his career his own classrooms were a bit zoo-like.

Dr. Hood was my nemesis. She was a veteran high school English teacher with a Ph.D. I was a first-year history teacher fresh out of the Peace Corps.

Dr. Hood ran her classroom like a mother superior. Every day she did what she called “SSR” (short for sustained silent reading), literature circles, and other research-based practices. She and her kids quietly discussed works by Henry David Thoreau, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Harper Lee.

Meanwhile, my classroom was a veritable zoo. I blasted music (usually Bob Dylan) from a boom box, improvised my way through historical reenactments of dubious authenticity, and drafted a shoddy curriculum on the fly. What I lacked in experience and knowledge of pedagogy, I desperately tried to make up for with enthusiasm, ingenuity and an unwarranted sense of invincibility. In other words, like most novice teachers, I shot from the hip – hoping to hit something that at least resembled an academic standard.

Our classrooms were separated by two thin layers of sheetrock. Needless to say, there were conflicts.

During one of our regular upper-school team meetings, Dr. Hood asked the group what kind of assessments we used. “I do a lot of crossword puzzles,” I proudly proclaimed!

“Why is that?” Dr. Hood asked.

“Well,” I said, “they’re fun. The kids seem to really enjoy them.”

“Are you sure about that?” she asked with a knowing grin. “And, what exactly are you testing?”

“Vocabulary, historical facts – those kinds of things,” I said. “And, I even crossover into your lane with a bit of spelling.”

“I see,” said Dr. Hood. “You do realize that crossword puzzles are a type of forced choice, one of the least effective forms of assessment.”

“Forced choice?” I asked. “I’ve never heard of that.”

“I’m not surprised,” she said. “That’s when you force a student to choose ‘the right’ answer. It’s fine for basic skills and knowledge, but for HOTS, it’s pretty lousy.”

“HOTS?” I asked.

“Higher Order Thinking Skills,” she said with a shrug.

It was the first of many testing lessons.

According to education researcher, Dr. Robert Marzano, there are seven forms of assessment. Forced choice is just one of them. The others include essays, short written responses, oral reports, performance tasks, teacher observations, and self-assessments. Each has its strengths, and each has its deficiencies.

Drowning in the day-to-day challenges of classroom management and lesson planning, they cling to the bright red life preserver of forced choice.

For example, forced choice is OK for testing a student’s grasp of facts, but less so for evaluating her grasp of a process for analyzing a topic. While an essay might be good for assessing communication skills, it’s probably not the best way to assess a child’s swimming proficiency. (A performance task, say swimming across a pool, would be much better for that.). Marzano claims that student self-assessments and performance tasks are the most effective overall, and that forced choice is the least. My nemesis was correct.

Yet today (as in the past), the majority of assessments used in schools are forced choice. For formative assessments, they come in the form of direct-response questions. For example, what is the capital of Louisiana, as opposed to, why would the state pick Baton Rouge over New Orleans in naming a capital city? As for summative assessments, they come in a variety pack that includes various forms of fill-in-the-blank, true-or-false, matching, and the ubiquitous multiple-choice test.

  1. If they are not all that effective, why are forced-choice assessments so prevalent?
  2. They are easy to grade.
  3. They are accurate and reliable.
  4. They are the “gold standard.”
  5. Teachers are not as comfortable with other forms of assessment.
  6. All of the above

Yes, you guessed it. The answer is 6, all of the above.

Tests that use forced-choice questions are easy to create and easy to grade. Using various programs (there are several for creating crossword puzzles by the way), teachers can generate a test with a simple keystroke; and they can process test results for an entire classroom in a matter of minutes. For this reason, they are understandably popular – and, for this reason, companies like Scantron have turned little bubbles into BIG dollars.

As an experiment in college, I once gave the same essay to two professors in the same discipline. One gave me an A-plus and the other gave me a C-minus. It made me question the validity of the assignment – not to mention, the high cost of my tuition. This is rarely the case with forced choice. For accuracy, measuring what you set out to measure, and for reliability, getting consistent results, forced choice scores high.

Most standardized tests, from the ACT to the GRE, are predominantly forced-choice. Not surprisingly, to prepare kids for them, teachers use them – a lot. It makes sense. Just ask the folks at The Princeton Review.

Finally, as my “teachable moment” with Dr. Hood would attest, young teachers don’t always have the bandwidth to create and used effective alternative assessments. Instead, drowning in the day-to-day challenges of classroom management and lesson planning, they cling to the bright red life preserver of forced choice. They survive, but their kids flail.

The skills kids will need to survive and thrive in the future, 21st -century skills such as  collaboration, creativity and critical thinking, are difficult (if not impossible) to measure with bubbles and blanks. They demand a variety of practices and tools, from real-world performance tasks that require kids to demonstrate mastery in a novel way, to school-wide portfolios that show real growth over real time.

Fortunately, there is hope on the horizon. Testing companies like Pearson and Microsoft are developing resources to support the use of alternative assessments that are easy, accurate and reliable. Edutopia and The Buck Institute for Education are among institutions that push “best practices,”  including teaching and learning experiences built around specific real-world projects and problems. Schools and universities are investing in high-quality professional development to give teachers the testing bandwidth they need. They are helping educators and institutions find a healthy, balanced approach to assessment.

As we all know, you don’t fatten a pig by weighing it.

I was working with a “turn-around” school in a down-and-out district. It was in its third year of a four-year charter; time to “make the grade” was quickly running out. To “prove themselves,” teachers and administrators had to get students to pass a battery of tests in core subject areas.* So, they did pre- and post-testing for every lesson. They used bubble sheets, bar codes, electronic response devices, and computer programs to constantly measure and monitor progress from bell to bell. Kids were tested online and off, in and out of school, coming and going.

Sitting with the school’s leadership team at the end of the day, I was asked by the principal, “So, Mr. Dunbar, what do you think of our data?”

“Well, you certainly have a lot of it,” I said. “But, is it the right kind?”

“What do you mean, ‘the right kind?’” the principal fired back.

“Well, in the real world, we are tested in a variety of ways, from interviews and group projects to formal proposals and debriefings. Most of them don’t involve No. 2 pencils and little ovals. Employers want to know how well we get along with others, how well we think outside the box. Are we measuring that? More importantly, are we teaching that? As we all know, you don’t fatten a pig by weighing it.”

In the back of my head, below the moss and through the spider webs of time, I thought of Dr. Hood – and smiled.

* Core subject areas usually include math, language arts, science and social studies, though the latter is definitely the redheaded stepchild of the group. The arts, foreign languages, public speaking, technology, and other disciplines are rarely tested, and, as a result, are often overlooked. As educators like to say, “What gets measured gets taught.”

Folwell Dunbar is an educator and writer from New Orleans. He is the author of He Falls Well: A Memoir of Survival. He can be reached at

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