Remember those tough teachers who only begrudgingly offered multiple choice exams and used the right minus wrong formula to discourage guessing? Every incorrect answer was subtracted from the total of correct answers, so if you weren’t sure of your response, it was better to leave the question blank than to guess. This led to some pretty agonizing moments at test time, especially when you were only 95% sure of your answer.
The best teachers were the ones who encouraged us students to work through our math and science problems step by step, showing our work as we went. When our tests came back, those good teachers would often point out where we went wrong, and lo and behold, we learned something. You could almost feel the light bulb going off in your mind. And as a bonus, you usually received some credit for your work. This sort of positive reinforcement helps students grow in both confidence and competence.
The Alberta government is taking the easy way out by moving to a multiple choice only format for diploma exams in math and science. Apparently this will save the public about $1.7 million a year in marking fees, costs of preparing the exam, extra paper and so on. But what price will be paid by young Albertans? No longer will they receive partial credit for the problems they come close to solving, a daunting reality when diploma exams count for half of the year’s grade.
How long before multiple choice only diploma exams are the standard for social studies and language arts, too?
a) When the provincial deficit hits $15 billion
b) When a flashier scandal distracts the media
c) When moderate Tories in the government caucus lose yet another battle to their right-wing colleagues
d) Any and all of the above
Multiple choice exams have their place. But when I was a student, I always felt like I was learning more when I had to show my work, whether analyzing a novel or play with an essay or solving a problem in chemistry or trigonometry step by step. Removing long-form questions from science and math diploma exams is a step backward for education in Alberta, and it’s unfair to students.
It feels like the government is taking its own multiple-choice test when it comes to solving their financial problems. But when Alberta’s social, economic and cultural progress is on the line – and it is – they need to remember that wrong guesses, like those old right minus wrong exams, have dire consequences.