Fix, Don't Junk, Multiple Choice
I agree with the idea that most multiple-choice questions asked today tell "nothing significant about a student's understanding." But essay writing is not the only acceptable alternative: multiple-choice questioning can be reformed so that it can test students' understanding.
Let's start by introducing students to a bit of historiography. Let's coach them to construct historical arguments in which they make historical claims, apply supporting factual evidence for those claims, and build logical reasons for believing larger historical hypotheses. Let's help students do history.
In the following, a controversial claim is made which should provoke recall of a specific supporting fact. Notice the student is not told the fact; he or she is instead referred to it (another question might ask for a fact that opposes the claim).
CLAIM: In the Civil War period President Lincoln cared little about the fate of American slaves. Which of the following refers to a true fact supporting this claim?
A) What Lincoln meant by "a house divided"
B) What Lincoln told Horace Greeley in 1862
C) Why Lincoln favored popular sovereignty in 1858
D) The date of the Emancipation Proclamation
In the correct answer, (B), the student must know that Lincoln famously wrote Horace Greeley:
My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy slavery.
It is a fact that Lincoln wrote this letter. It is one piece of evidence supporting the extremely controversial claim alleging Lincoln's indifference. The question takes the student through two levels of generalization—the level of factual knowledge and the level of interpretive claiming—very like the way we make oral and written arguments.
(A) is wrong because it refers to another claim rather than an asked-for fact ("meant" does not refer to a fact). It is vital that students distinguish between factual statements and interpretive claims. Further, the famous "house divided" speech may flatly oppose the claim; at least Lincoln tells what he "expects" to become of slavery.
(C) refers to a claim, though the question asks for a fact. (C) also implies a false fact: Lincoln actually opposed Douglas's popular sovereignty doctrine.
(D) refers to a fact, but an irrelevant one. The date of the Emancipation Proclamation does not, by itself, tell us anything about Lincoln's intentions.
Claim-and-evidence is one of several models of multiple-choice questions. It should be clear that what I propose requires reformed classroom procedures, as well as reformed testing. Both serve a single goal: to show students how to express what they think about the history we want them to know.