An Empirical Investigation of the Fairness of Multiple-Choice Items Relative to Constructed-Response Items on Tests of Students’ Mastery of Course Content

Michael Joseph Wise


Although many instructors prefer multiple-choice (MC) items due to their convenience and objectivity, many others eschew their use due to concerns that they are less fair than constructed response (CR) items at evaluating student mastery of course content. To address three common unfairness concerns, I analyzed performance on MC and CR items from tests within nine sections of five different biology courses I taught over a five-year period. In all nine sections, students’ scores on MC items were highly correlated with their scores on CR items (overall r = 0.90), suggesting that MC and CR items quantified mastery of content in an essentially equivalent manner—at least to the extent that students’ relative rankings depended very little on the type of test item. In addition, there was no evidence that any students were unfairly disadvantaged on MC items (relative to their performance on CR items) due to poor guessing abilities. Finally, there was no evidence that females were unfairly assessed by MC items, as they scored 4% higher on average than males on both MC and CR items. Overall, there was no evidence that MC items were any less fair than CR items testing within the same content domain.

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