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Science quiz hits misconceptions

John Miller / AP

In this file photo, teacher Becky Ogle, standing, holds her laptop computer as she explains how to use an Excel spreadsheet to a freshman class at Empire High School in Vail, Ariz. New multiple choice test questions could reform science education.

Multiple choice tests have long made teachers and students go ick, but a new variety launched today could be a game changer that improves science education in the U.S. by pointing out what students know, and, importantly, their misconceptions.

To get things started, let's look at a few sample questions. Like all multiple choice questions, one of the possible answers is right. Common misconceptions are also included in the choices. (Scroll to the end of the post for the correct answers. More questions and answers are available online.)

1. Which of the following is TRUE about the species that are living on earth today?


  • A. All species living today have existed since the time life began.
  • B. Most species living today have existed since the time life began, but a few have appeared more recently.
  • C. Most species living today did not exist at the time life began.
  • D. There is no way of finding out whether all, most, or only a few species living today existed since the time life began.

2. Which of the following kinds of cells perform basic functions such as making molecules for growth? 

  • A. Plant cells, but not animal cells
  • B. Animal cells, but not plant cells
  • C. Both plant cells and animal cells
  • D. Neither animal cells nor plant cells

3. Why does liquid water take the shape of a cup it is poured into, but solid ice cubes do not?

  • A. Because the molecules of liquid water are softer than the molecules of solid ice
  • B. Because the molecules of liquid water are smaller than the molecules of solid ice
  • C. Because the molecules of liquid water are moving but the molecules of solid ice are not
  • D. Because the molecules of liquid water can easily move past one another but the molecules of solid ice cannot

4. Which of the following is TRUE about the boundaries between earth’s plates?

  • A. Boundaries can be anywhere in an ocean basin or a continent
  • B. Boundaries are always where ocean basins meet continents.
  • C. Boundaries are always in the middle of ocean basins.
  • D. Boundaries are not found in continents.

5. Some organisms, such as a chimpanzee and a human, have many similarities.  Others, such as a zebra and a worm, have fewer similarities.  What is TRUE about the ancestors of these organisms?

  • A. Chimpanzees and humans share a common ancestor with each other, but zebras and worms do not share a common ancestor with each other.
  • B. Chimpanzees and humans share a common ancestor with each other, and zebras and worms share a common ancestor with each other, but chimpanzees and humans do not share a common ancestor with zebras and worms.
  • C. Because chimpanzees, humans, zebras, and worms are separate species, none of them shares a common ancestor with any other.
  • D. Chimpanzees, humans, zebras, and worms all share an ancient common ancestor. 

Question analysis
George DeBoer, deputy director of the project at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, highlighted that last question – correct answer is D – in a teleconference with reporters today. The question is one of several that get at the idea of common descent of all living organisms.

"The idea is, if you go back far enough, we are all related, all the way back to single cell organisms," he said.

Analysis of the questions clustered around this topic reveal that 65 percent of students know the principle that living organisms can share a common ancestor with other living species and with species that are extinct, "but there was a significant drop off when students were presented with specific cases," he said.

For example, 45 percent of students correctly answered that eagles and owls are related; for dogs and cats it drops to 27 percent; for dogs, cats, fish and birds it drops to 17 percent. Just 9 percent think chimpanzees, humans, zebras, and worms are related.

When the same question about chimpanzees, humans, zebras and worms is phrased in such a way that this is what scientists think – not what the student believes to be correct – as a means to get around the messiness of personal beliefs and scientific fact, the responses were unchanged.

The 600 questions, which are part of the AAAS' Project 2061 science-education reform initiative, are targeted at middle and early high school science students and aligned with national content standards and consistent with state standards — that is, the questions are meant to really get to the meat of what students are expected to know, explained DeBoer.

Alternative ideas
Using documented misconceptions as answer choices "allows us to find out the alternative ideas students have as well as what they know and do not know," he said in today's briefing with reporters.

The questions were field tested on more than 90,000 students in 814 schools. Overall student performance highlighted some "bright spots" and places where "things look pretty dismal," DeBoer said.

The average number of questions answered correct was 46 percent, he noted. Of course, broken down across individuals, the range is wide. Some students can answer just about anything asked. But a large percentage doesn't know much at all. School location appeared to make a difference.

Since the questions reveal what students don't know and their misconceptions, the project team hopes they will allow teachers to better target their instruction, DeBoer said.

"Students create strange conceptions about the world from their experiences," Anu Malipatil, a school administrator for a network of charger schools in New York and Connecticut, said in a press release. "It becomes more difficult to teach students without actually addressing the misconception first."

To learn more about the program, common misconceptions, check out the AAAS Science Assessment website. Answers to the five questions included at the top of this post are as follows:1. C; 2. C; 3. D; 4. A; 5. D

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John Roach is a contributing writer for msnbc.com. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by hitting the "like" button on the Cosmic Log Facebook page or following msnbc.com's science editor, Alan Boyle, on Twitter (@b0yle).