The BEST Choice (Part 1): How “Best Answer” and “Except” Questions Affect Student Scores

You’re probably familiar with the following scenario: students are taking a test and read the multiple-choice question “Which of the following sentences BEST illustrates the main idea in the story?” Answer A includes a sentence that relates to a key idea from the article. But then again, so does Answer C.

To assess students’ understanding of the main idea, many standardized tests — including PARCC and Smarter Balanced — 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. Quizzes on Newsela also feature similar 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 described below:



So how do students do on tests and quizzes when a question contains one of the above words? We decided to look at average quiz scores for questions with qualifying words. As many teachers might guess, we found that these questions tend to be more difficult for students. Overall students demonstrated proficiency* in only 20 percent of all questions with a qualifying word.


We asked our Manager of Assessment what she would recommend for students who were “Not Proficient” or “Nearly Proficient”. She said one technique for dealing with Anchor 2 questions is to have students provide a short, 50 word summary of the article. They can even provide a summary that is under 160 characters (Tweet length) if Twitter is used in the classroom. Using their brief summary, they should be able to separate the main idea from the key ideas or interesting points made in the article.

Newsela also looked into which qualifying words (BEST, EXCEPT, DOES NOT, etc.) were especially confusing to students. We’ll let you know which words trip students up on our quiz questions next week.

*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.