Machine-graded bubble sheets are the defining feature of American schools. Today’s kindergartners may never have to fill one out.
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Through funding cuts and bumps, integration and resegregation, panics and reforms, world wars and culture wars, American students have consistently learned at least one thing well: how to whip out a No. 2 pencil and mark exam answers on a sheet printed with row after row of bubbles. Whether you are an iPad baby or a Baby Boomer, odds are that you have filled in at least a few, if not a few hundred, of these machine-graded multiple-choice forms. They have long been the key ingredient in an alphabet soup of standardized tests, both national (SAT, ACT, TOEFL, LSAT, GRE) and local (SHSAT, STAAR, WVGSA). And they are used in both $50,000-a-year academies and the most impoverished public schools, where the classic green or blue Scantron answer sheets can accompany daily quizzes in every subject.
Machine grading, now synonymous with the brand Scantron the way tissues are with Kleenex, is so popular because it can provide rapid and straightforward results for millions of students. In turn, this technology has ushered in an epoch of multiple-choice testing. Why does English class involve not just writing essays but also choosing which of four potential themes a passage represents? Why does calculus require not just writing proofs but selecting the correct solution from various predetermined numbers? That is largely because of the Scantron and its brethren.