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Think Purpose First

I wish I had had a copy of Rabb's critique of multiple-choice assessments when I argued with administrators in my school district about the trivializing nature of multiple-choice tests. Maybe they would have been convinced. Now, however, teachers in large urban school districts like mine must pay attention to these tests. They have no choice. Even teachers in our district who hate such tests spend time giving practice questions—not only because of No Child Left Behind, but also because of the AP, SAT, etc. It's just the coin of the realm.

Supporters for multiple-choice testing often accept the notion that assessment is about accountability. But there are at least two other purposes for a broader understanding of assessment: to provide feedback for the teacher, and to create the basis for a common conversation among colleagues.

Teachers in our district voted overwhelmingly to have our 10th- and 11th-grade students take a common writing assessment (a "DBQ," or Document Based Question). During the debates leading to the vote, some teachers argued, like Rabb, that a common prompt took away their ability to frame their own themes. They're right. For example, our common 10th-grade question on the Industrial Revolution asked if the pain was worth the gain to working people of England. But what about the teacher who wants to focus on the Industrial Revolution in Japan? How does that flower bloom?

In rejecting the argument for individual teacher choice in assessment, Oakland's teachers were essentially saying that they were willing to give up individual themes or assessments (at least twice a year) and teach the same topic for the good of the whole. They value the common conversation about student work that helps them improve as teachers. They value the principle of equality—ensuring that what constitutes strong work at one school is the same at another. Without a common prompt there is no basis for a common conversation.

Ultimately, the issue is not just about what type of test is best (multiple-choice versus essay) but the purpose to which that test is put. Teaching and the assessment that is linked to it shouldn't be an isolated, individualistic activity. Used right, assessment is a tool that can help teachers unlock closed doors.