Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | December 11, 2013

Bad Multiple Choice Questions

Discussing President Obama’s remarks at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service, Ann Althouse has a post that begins with this headline: “Obama compared Mandela to Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Lincoln.”

Something about that phrasing suggested to me the setup to a poorly constructed multiple choice question, of the type that American high school students encounter in the barrage of standardized tests to which we as a society subject them. Like so:

Consider four historical persons:

1. Abraham Lincoln
2. Mohandas Gandhi
3. Martin Luther King, Jr.
4. Nelson Mandela

Which of these two are most alike one another?

A. Lincoln and Gandhi because they were both born in the 19th Century
B. Gandhi and Mandela because they both lived in South Africa
C. Lincoln and King because they were both Americans
D. King and Mandela because they were both black
E. Lincoln and Mandela because they were both heads of state

(I could list more similarities — “King and Mandela because they were both Nobel Peace Prize Laureates”; “Gandhi and Mandela because they both spent substantial lengths of time imprisoned”; “Lincoln and Gandhi because both were attorneys” — including less superficial ones, such as, “Gandhi and King because they both consistently advocated non-violent civil disobedience” — but most scan-tron forms used in multiple-choice exams only allow five choices.)

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