In a forthcoming article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Roy Rosenzweig and I argue that the ubiquity of the Internet in students’ lives and advances in digital information retrieval threaten to erode multiple-choice testing, and much of standardized testing in general. A revealing article in this weekend’s Wall Street Journal shows that some schools are already ahead of the curve: “In a wireless age where kids can access the Internet’s vast store of information from their cellphones and PDAs, schools have been wrestling with how to stem the tide of high-tech cheating. Now some educators say they have the answer: Change the rules and make it legal. In doing so, they’re permitting all kinds of behavior that had been considered off-limits just a few years ago.” So which anything-goes schools are permitting this behavior, and what exactly are they doing?
The surprise is that it is actually occurring in the more rigorous and elite public and private schools, and they are allowing students to bring Internet-enabled devices into the exam room. Moreover, they are backed not by liberal education professors but by institutions such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and pragmatic observers of the information economy. As the WSJ (as well as Roy and I) point out, their argument parallels that of the introduction of calculators into mathematics education in the 1980s, eventually leading to the inclusion of these formerly taboo devices on the SATs in 1994, a move that few have since criticized. Today, if one of the main tools workers use in a digital age is the Internet, why not include it in test-taking? After all, asserts M.I.T. economist Frank Levy, it’s more important to locate and piece together information about the World Bank than to know when it was founded. “This is the way the world works,” Harvard Director of Admissions Marlyn McGrath commonsensically notes.
Of course, the bigger question, only partially addressed by the WSJ article, is how the use of these devices will change instruction in fields such as history. From elementary through high school, such instruction has often been filled with the rote memorization of dates and facts, which are easily testable (and rapidly graded) on multiple-choice forms. But we should remember that the multiple-choice test is only a century old; there have been, and there will surely be again, more instructive ways to teach and test such rich disciplines as history, literature, and philosophy.