Did Someone Actually Invent the Multiple-Choice Question?

Often, when a product or service has existed throughout our entire lifetime it is hard to imagine what life was like before its invention. I remember asking my parents what they did before there were TVs. Similarly, children growing up today will have a hard time conceiving of a world before the mobile phone or the Internet. But, though I had a hard time conceiving of life without TV, I understood that there was such a time. And most children of today, as they grow older, will understand that there was a time when mobile phones and the Internet didn’t exist — even though they may have a hard time conceiving of what life was like in those dark ages.

But what about something we never knew didn’t exist? Something we take for granted, but thought (if we thought about it at all) has “always” existed? From the title of this blog post you know what I am talking about: the ubiquitous multiple-choice question. Oh sure, if pressed, most of us would say: “I suppose Shakespeare never had to take a multiple-choice test.” But did your grandparents or great-grandparents take multiple-choice tests? Depending on your age, maybe not.

It turns out that multiple-choice questions have not “always” existed. They were invented relatively recently – a little over 100 years ago. The person credited with inventing them was Frederick J. Kelly of the University of Kansas. In 1914 he created the Kansas Silent Reading Test to assess children’s ability to read silently. Here is a sample question from the test with his instructions:

His “invention” was part of a “modernization” movement meant to systematize and make instruction and assessment more efficient. He believed that multiple-choice questions would remove subjectivity from grading (which, arguably, they do).

His invention spread rapidly and was used to test army recruits during WW I. A little more than 20 years later, automated machine-scoring systems were invented and marketed by IBM, and the era of mass testing was upon us.

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