Thursday, October 22, 2009

Multiple Choice Math & Science - Whose interest does this serve?

Discussing how the economy controls education got me thinking about the decision to cut all of the written components from the math and science grade 12 diplomas in Alberta. These exams now rely exclusively on multiple choice questions. (I know it was a long time ago that this was brought up in class but I didn’t get a chance to make a comment about it).

First of all, this would really freak me out as a student. I really don’t like multiple choice questions - for math in particular. Basically, if you make one small mistake in a calculation, you get the entire question wrong. You get no recognition for using the correct formula or process. Also, the detractors are often answers the student would arrive at if he/she made a common mistake. When they see that that answer is an option, they choose it automatically (this was basically me in my intro Stats class at U of A … sidebar). This type of exam will hardly show accurate knowledge or problem solving skills of students. This change does not seem fair to students and does not serve their interests in the least. So, whose interest it is serving?

According to an article in the Edmonton Journal, Alberta spends about $12 million on diploma exams each year. This cut will “save” the province about $1.5 million. Because only multiple choice questions are used, the answers can be scanned instead of being marked individually by teachers – saving a lot of time and money. I would understand wanting to save money and save teachers having to mark exams endlessly if the exams still allowed students to showcase process knowledge. In addition, this change seems to contradict the new math curriculum in Alberta. I have had a little bit of experience with the new curriculum. I attended a professional development course on the new grade 2 math curriculum during my PSI. It seemed to me that the new program focused on process, reasoning, problem solving, and visualization. It was more important how they arrived at an answer, than if they got the correct answer. Communicating how students arrived at an answer is very important.

Because there are two sides to every argument, I think it is important to talk about some pros that have been expressed. According to Education Minister Dave Hancock, assessment of the diplomas showed that students scored “much the same” on the written portion as on the multiple choice section. In addition, it will shorten the exam period by two and a half days, will give more time for teaching in the classroom, and will reduce test anxiety. Also, the exam is still only worth half of the final mark, so process and problem solving skills can be assessed in the classroom (CBC News, September 18, 2009).

Just as I would argue that how a student arrived at an answer is important, I would also argue that once out in the real world working on an engineering project for example, the correct answer does matter. Both are important. However, I would question whether or not this change will result in changes in teaching methods. Often we hear of teachers only “teaching to the exam.”

This change has definitely been a topic for discussion for many teachers, parents, and administrators. I will be interested to see how it plays out.


CBC News. (September 18, 2009). Alberta math, science exams to be multiple choice. Retrieved from

O’Donnell, Sarah. (September 16, 2009). Diploma exams go multiple choice: No more long-answer segment for Grade 12 math, science tests. Edmonton Journal. Retrieved from

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