Scantron Tests: A Jedi Mind Trick?

ScantronTestEver marked three of the same letter answers in a row and seriously start questioning the correctness of your thinking on a Scantron answer sheet?    Double checking and triple checking your work–as the minutes tick by and you become more frantic to finish the test before the period is up?  And, you know in the back of your mind that tests are 75% of your overall grade and the teacher isn’t flexible about retakes; your grade is teetering between a B and a C and you’re wondering if you’re going to stay in B range, plus if you get a C in AP Calculus BC, you might as well kiss every college admissions anywhere including community college good bye, making all your efforts nothing.  “Nothing. Nothing.  Nothing I say,” as you imagine your teacher with Albert Einstein hair, smoke rising from their clipboard and red demon eyes glowing in the florescent lighting of the teacher break room, as all the other teachers circle around chanting in unfamiliar, guttural sounds plotting the downfall of the next student…ARRRRGH!!!  Now you’re really not concentrating on complex math problems or whatever the subject matter being tested.  In an alternate reality, maybe, the triple same answer letter in a row is simply an error on the teacher’s part, as s/he was writing the test in the wee hours of the night before, then frenetically making copies before first period started, hopping from foot to foot, in the 25+ line of teachers at the copy machine, that inevitably ran out of toner and paper simultaneously, setting off a flurry of activity to find the Principal’s secretary–panting as she ran to class, with wad of stacked copies still warm with the toner smudged, and began passing them out as students took their seats.   As you can see, taking a Scantron formatted test isn’t a straightforward demonstration of what a student knows about the subject matter.

By nature, Scantron tests are multiple choice, challenging students to demonstrate their knowledge in a unique way.  First, students are transferring what they remember between two pieces of paper–the test question sheet and the scantron.  Seemingly simple, we’ve all had that experience where we filled in the wrong oval, only to discover the mis-numbering at the very end of the test, when time’s being called and there’s an extra blank that should be filled.  (OH, NO!)  Plus, multiple choice tests, depending on the subject matter, can change our strategy for how we answer the questions, not requiring us to know all the answers.   Taking a multiple choice math test is different than a fill in the blank show all your work math test.  In the former, student have the option to “plug and solve” answers they think are correct into the formula and through process of elimination determine the right answer, which requires limited knowledge of the math concept.  However, in the latter, students must write out step by step their solution, so the teacher can SEE their work and thinking, knowing at step 25 is where the kid’s knowledge starts to diverge from the “right” answer.  (In addition, students can earn partial credit on the write-out-your-answer tests, buffering their grade.)  Also, on vocabulary tests with multiple choice or matching answers, both process of elimination and “alluded” to definitions will suffice, as an “educated guess” can merit the correct answer; thus, the student only needs an impression of the right information, not complete knowledge, which changes their preparation strategy the night before the test.  Even when students must read a passage, only a basic understanding of the text’s meaning is needed to eliminate obvious wrong answers versus demonstrating their knowledge in an essay exam or fill in the blank answers.

The scantron seemingly streamlines the testing process for a teacher, especially at the high school level, who’s responsible for the learning of 160 students, and makes grading simpler, though not always more accurate.  And, while part of that responsibility is assessing what students have learned over time, HOW that information is returned to the teacher can affect how the teacher ultimately quantifies that learning–which makes a grade not just based on what a student knows.  Parents and students who understand that test grades are more complex than dumping facts from one’s brain onto the paper, and accounts for the complexity of how one learns, then the grade can be more accurately understood, as a measurement of learning.

For more advice regarding test preparation for the SAT, ACT, SAT Subject tests or subject matter tutoring, contact us at (916) 457-4090.  We can offer insight to strategies that will streamline the preparation process, and fit in between an already busy schedule.  

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Thanks to Joe Visitacion and his musings, for inspiring this post. 

Photo Credit: Mental Floss

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About Jill Yoshikawa, Ed M, Partner of Creative Marbles Consultancy

Jill Yoshikawa, EdM, Harvard ’99, a seasoned, 25 year educator and consultant, is meticulous in helping clients navigate all aspects of the educational experience, no matter the level of complexity. She combines educational theory with experience to advise families, schools and educators. A UCSD and Harvard graduate, as well as a former high school teacher, Jill works tirelessly to help her clients succeed.
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