The BEST Choice: How do students perform on questions with more than one good answer? (Hint: NOT very well)

The Common Core’s nonfiction standards require students to understand the central idea of a text. As teachers know, understanding the point of a story or article is something with which some students truly wrestle.

To assess students’ understanding of the main idea, many Common Core-aligned standardized tests, including PARCC and Smarter Balanced, certain items ask students to provide the BEST answer. These questions typically have more than one answer that works, but one of the answers works better than the other. Newsela also has these sorts of questions and we wondered whether the structure of the question could negatively affect a student’s performance. Specifically, we looked into CCSS R.I. Anchor 2 questions that included a qualifier word like BEST, EXCEPT, DOES NOT. Examples of these questions include the following:

  • Which detail DOES NOT support the main idea?
  • Which of the following is LEAST important to include in a summary of the article?
  • Which sentence is MOST important to support the main idea of the article?
  • Which of the following BEST describes two main ideas in the article?
  • All of the following are main ideas of the article EXCEPT:

These qualifying words can then be bucketed into two categories — positive and negative words, as shown below:

So how do students perform when a central idea question contains one of the above words? Overall, these questions tend to be more difficult for students. Overall students demonstrated proficiency in only 20 percent of all questions with a qualifying word.

Questions with negative qualifiers seem to stump students the most:

With that said, we wanted to see which qualifying words are the hardest and easiest for each grade. The table below provides a list of the toughest and easiest qualifiers for students, by grade. For example, if you teach eighth grade, your students will tend to find “DOES NOT” questions the most difficult, while performing relatively better on “BEST” questions.


So do your students do best on “BEST” questions? Most likely. Except for eleventh graders, students perform best on “BEST” questions or questions with a positive qualifying word. So now the questions become:

  • What is the BEST technique to improve outcomes on negative qualifying questions?
  • What DOES NOT help students in answering questions with a qualifying word?

Tweet us @Newsela and let us know what is working BEST and what is NOT working.

*Proficient is defined as achieving an average of 70 percent or above, nearly proficient is defined as an average between 50 and 70 percent, and not proficient is defined as below 50 percent.


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