New York State Throws Students a Pineapple


The big education news this weekend is a bizarre exercise included on New York state's standardized English exam for eighth graders. It consisted of a garbled excerpt [pdf] from Daniel Pinkwater's novel Borgel—I say "garbled" because the testmakers edited it with a heavy hand—followed by a series of reading comprehension questions, several of which asked for information that arguably was not present in the text. The authorities have decided to ignore the questions when calculating the results, reports The New York Times:

The unintended consequences of surrealist y.a. fiction.

In a statement Friday afternoon, John B. King Jr., the state education commissioner, said that "due to the ambiguous nature of the test questions the department has decided it will not be counted against students in their scores."…Mr. King also said that in the context of the full passage the questions "make more sense."

But more than a dozen eighth graders interviewed Friday unanimously disputed Mr. King's assessment, saying that two of the six questions were barely rational. (All six are being thrown out.)

The crux of the passage is that the pineapple challenges the hare to a race, and the other animals are convinced the pineapple must have a trick up its sleeve and will win. When the pineapple stands still, the animals eat it. The moral of the story: "Pineapples don't have sleeves."

One of the disputed questions asked, essentially, which was the wisest animal. Some students said that none of the animals seemed very bright, but that a likely answer was the owl, because it was the one that uttered the moral….The other tough question was why the animals ate the pineapple. Students were torn between two of the four choices: they were annoyed or they were hungry; either one seemed to work.

The Times notes that "the same passage and questions, perhaps with variations, have been used at least as far back as 2007 in states like Illinois, Arkansas, Delaware and Alabama, and every time, elicited roughly the same spectrum of incredulity, bafflement, hilarity and outrage." So this isn't simply one weird aberration; it's a recurring issue.

It also speaks to a broader problem with some of the reading comprehension questions on standardized tests. I frequently found, when I was a kid, that there was more than one defensible answer to the questions in these sections of the exams. I was good at determining which one of those answers was "correct," but the skill I was exercising there wasn't reading comprehension. It was bureaucratic expectations comprehension, a.k.a. figuring out what some jerk in an office wants you to say. (This, to be fair, is also a valuable life skill.)

The Times asked the alternative-education guru Deborah Meier for her thoughts. She replied that

It's a psychometic concept with no sleeves.

the pineapple passage was "an outrageous example of what's true of most of the items on any test, it's just blown up larger."

In the world of testing, she said, it does not really matter whether an answer is right or wrong; the "right" answer is the one that field testing has shown to be the consensus answer of the "smart" kids. "It's a psychometric concept," she said.

I see two upsides to the incident. First: It's forcing discussion about the problems with standardized tests, not just among testing critics such as Meier but among testing supporters such as Kathleen Porter-Magee. Second: It may mean more royalty checks for Pinkwater, the author of the brilliant Lizard Music and Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy from Mars, among other fine stories. Two forces that never come off well in Pinkwater's books are bureaucracy and conformity; I have a hard time imagining that he likes the idea of subjecting an absurdist fable from a jokey novel to the kind of reductive reading required by the New York state exam.

In Pinkwater's Young Adult Novel, written for older readers, a group of boys form a Dadaist gang dedicated to making life at school funnier and more confusing. Evidently, some of those kids grew up and infiltrated a company that produces standardized tests.

NEXT: Christie/Springsteen Snoozegate Even Dumber than Obama Dog-Eating Story

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. I’m sorry but yawn. There’s at least a couple screwups on every test ever taken. Tests aren’t perfect, therefore we should not have test?

    1. Sometimes tests are fundamentally flawed.

      Given the following list, which word is not in alphabet order:


      Now imagine that repeated 20 times (with different words obviously). Now try explaining to the teacher why the test is flawed.

      /Note: this specific example did not happen to me. My sister, however, apparently fails at psychometrics.

      1. It’s extra screwed up if you’re going by the actual Greek alphabet.

        You’ve made my head hurt on a weekend, I hate you. =(

        1. playing X3:TC lately, and stations are named with alpha, beta, etc appended to the end of the name. ofcourse, the system map lists them in latin alphabetical order instead of greek. bugs me.

      2. Explanation:

        Given any list of items to be put into any well-ordering, it is impossible for only one item to be not in the correct ordering, regardless of what order that is.

        1. That’s not true. If beta had appeared at the end of the list, only beta would be out of order.

          1. No, if Beta was at the end of the list than three words would be out of order.

            1. I hereby fail this entire thread, and it goes on your permanent records.

              1. You pledged Lambda Lambda Lambda, didn’t you?

                PS Screw you squirrelz!

        2. No, ordering is an attribute of the list, not the words. So, it only makes sense to say that the list is out of order.

          Of course, by convention folks can speak informally about a word or words being out of order, but the deep meaning must be understood to mean that the list is not in order.

  2. OT: “the hopes that Obama would be a kinder, gentler, more tolerant drug warrior have gone up in smoke.”

    Read more:…..z1shtmcI1c…..75421.html

    1. Riddle me this JB. Back in 2008, Reason was all over saying how the Republicans had to lose because it was the only hope of reforming the party. They deserved to lose because of Bush’s wars and big government.

      Okay. That makes sense. But then, doesn’t it now make equal sense that the Democrats deserve to have a historic and soul destroying defeat for completely abandoning any pretense that they either cared about civil rights or ending the war? Wouldn’t a few years in the wilderness do them some good? Yet, I never see that argument made this year like it was in 2008.

      1. No one thinks the Ds will change?

      2. You already know the answer to that John.

        1. Isnt one of the standard things lawyers are told is to never ask a question (at least in court) that you dont know the answer to?

          Its one of many things that makes lawyers fucking annoying.

      3. Wow! Talk about a question which cuts to the quick!

        After some reflection, I think it comes down to less of a feeling of betrayal towards the Democrats.

        Let me put it this way. I have two kids with 4 years’ age difference between the two.

        There was a time when one was 7 and the other was 3. When the three year old tried to serve herself cereal and dropped a half gallon of milk on the floor, it was a lot less upsetting than when the seven year old did the same thing a week later.

        I have low expectations of the Democrats because having lived in MA most of my life, I have experienced their superstitious, backward, emotional fascism so often that I expect nothing else from them.

        The Republicans, on the other hand, once convinced me that they actually believed in limited government, that unlike the Democrats they wouldn’t loot the middle class to line the pockets of the rich. The dashing of my fondness for them has left me very bitter.

        If I had been born in 1850 and had managed to live to the present, I imagine my feelings of betrayal and a desire to wound would be aimed at the Democrats – the true champions of limited government in the early 19th century, and feelings toward Republican corporatism and warmongering would be a “meh”

        But you’re right; there is a double standard.

        1. There was a time when one was 7 and the other was 3. When the three year old tried to serve herself cereal and dropped a half gallon of milk on the floor, it was a lot less upsetting than when the seven year old did the same thing a week later.

          Really? I’d have been far happier that the 7 year old had to actually clean up the milk rather than the pretty much incompetent (because it’s 3) 3 year old.

          1. You’re missing the point. He wasn’t mad at the 3 year old because that would be unreasonable. She was 3. But the 7 year old really ought to have known what he was doing.

      4. No, the Democrats are irredeemable.

        Besides, the Republican loss spurred the growth of the Tea Party types, so the reform argument seems at least partially correct in hindsight.

        1. The above 2 comments are right, but that wasn’t/isn’t Reason’s motivation. What John knows and everybody knows was that the ‘punish the GOP’ meme was an eruption of liberaltardianism, which continues to boil under the surface.

          1. But the socialist are cool.

            And run all the institutions they want to work at.

            And most importantly, they throw great cocktail parties where all the cool people hang out.

            You fly over troglodytes just don’t understand.

          2. It doesn’t just boil under the surface. Libertarians have pleaded for 40 yrs., “We’re not conservative!” and feel like they have to do all they can to get people to believe that. If there were more libertarians, such that conservatives might be thought to be a species of libertarian rather than vice versa, the psychology would be otherwise; everybody wants to be the tree trunk rather than a branch.

            1. No, libertarians understand that they are a party of what is broadly called ‘the right’–that part of the political spectrum that purports to support individual liberty, individual freedom and individual responsibility. But Libertarianism, infested by Gramscians, pretends towards the left.

              This causes actual libertarians, like Ron Paul to run as Republicans.

              Libertarians chase liberals and, in so doing, marginalize themslves with the party and the people who would be on board–while earning the scorn of the liberals they chase unless they come out hard against the GOP and the right.

      5. Dude, John, the D’s only answer to *everything* is “moar government.”

        Even on the fucking abortion/contraception issue. I mean, how can you be pro-choice and STILL have a moar government position? Only the dems could figure that shit out.

        1. It’s because they’re not really pro-choice, they’re pro-abortion. Choice is just the only pragmatic way they can get more abortions, because they have no chance of mandating abortions here & now.

      6. Wouldn’t a few years in the wilderness do them some good? Yet, I never see that argument made this year like it was in 2008.

        Uh, I’m pretty sure that’s because the argument is “fuck Obama and the Dems.” There’s nothing valuable that they’ll learn in the wilderness. Vote them out, but not because we want them to do soul-searching; we could say Dems need to discover what it means to be anti-war or something, but I’m pretty sure we have no faith they’d do that and would rather see them voted out to relish their personal suffering.

        Kind of like this guy.

      7. Republicans certainly did deserve to be punished in ’06 and ’08 for all the LBJisms Bush shat down on us that too many of them like Santorum merrily supported. However, voting for Democrats was not really punishing the Republicans. It was like aiming a cat’o’nine tails at the elephant and winding up with stripes on your back.

      8. They don’t have any real principles?

        1. dind ding. we have a winner.

  3. Better Story: Australian woman gets workers comp after sex injury on business trip

    Read more:…..z1shuQovh6


    Orin Hatch forced into a primary. That is great news.

    1. That is great, but I’m sad he came so close to clinching it. He’ll probably win. Still worth it.

    2. He was good on dietary supplements. But that was a long time ago.

  5. In the world of testing, she said, it does not really matter whether an answer is right or wrong; the “right” answer is the one that field testing has shown to be the consensus answer of the “smart” kids. “It’s a psychometric concept,” she said.

    So we test on who most thinks like the alleged smart kids? That is fucked up.

    1. an answer based on ‘consensus’. Pretty much all you need to know about why the left is in the AGW camp.

    2. So if the majority of the alleged smart kids have subscribed to groupthink and come up with an answer that is not the best, that is the “right” answer?

      Perhaps they should put THAT on the test and see what comes up.

    3. By what metric are kids judged to be “smart” if the tests are relative to them?

      1. It’s like a lot of things in astronomy & geology, where distances & ages are determined by some measure which is in turn determined by distance or age. There is a small amount of independent calibr’n, but it would take relatively little in the way of contradictory evidence to throw the whole model away.

  6. I always hated tests where they said to choose the “best” answer. Best by what standard?

    On multiple choice questions, one answer should be right, and the others should be wrong.

    I guess to people who dont think there is such a thing as right and wrong or absolutes, that is hard to comprehend.

    1. I always loved entertaining myself with “logic problem” solutions to multiple choice questions: find an argument for why there is more than one “correct” answer to this question.

      Asimov had a good essay on “wrong answers” that basically said there are varying degrees of wrongness. Given the question 2+1=____, the child who says 1 because she misread the plus sign is not as wrong as the one who says 37 1/2 because he has only a vague understanding of math who in turn is not as wrong as the child who says purple because he doesn’t even understand this is a math problem.

      Multiple-guess, T/F or fill-in-the-blank tests are not a great way to judge understanding of a subject, but they are much easier to grade than essay tests which require both the test taker and the test giver to have some grasp of abstract reasoning.

      It is much easier to have tests that ask “When was Thomas Jefferson born?” rather than tests that ask “Why should we care whether or not Thomas Jefferson was born?” But I would suggest that the second is a more important question.

      1. As to your last paragraph, to be fair it is important for one to have a good grasp of the underlying facts before one can formulate an intelligent analysis. So “when was Jefferson born” (or, more fundamentally, “who was Thomas Jefferson”) needs to be taught first before the second can be answered.

        1. True – but unfortunately a lot of education consists of being able to regurgitate facts without any understanding of why these things might be important.

          I got into an argument over that with one of my profs in college. Actual test question: What was the name of the monk who set himself on fire in protest of the Vietnam War? My answer: His name wasn’t important, what matters is *why* he set himself on fire.

          I did not do well in his class.

          1. If that was my exam I would take off the point for you not knowing the answer but then give you an extra point for your comment.

          2. You shuld have regurgitated Madame Nhu’s answer, which is to say that you would have clapped at another monk barbecue show.

      2. Or better yet, “Why should the exact date that Thomas Jefferson be born be considered material that ought to be memorized by kids in government indoctrination camps, aka public schools?”

        1. are you saying that tables consisting of Date:Event are not useful in everyday life? I can’t tell you how many times that knowing the starting date of the War Of 1812 has been ABSOLUTELY VITAL to my continued existence.

          1. now i have to change my security pin

            1. might I recommend “1234”, it’s foolproof.

              1. That’s amazing! I have the same combination on my luggage!

      3. “Why should we care whether or not Thomas Jefferson was born?”

        Because if he wasn’t born, that has immense implications for the sophistication of biomedical science centuries ago. In fact, it probably points to alien involvement.


  7. This, to be fair, is also a valuable life skill.

    It is the most valuable skill that can be taught. Gaming the system means winning, when the system is turning out to be the only game in town.

    And for the record, the animals ate the pineapple because it drew attention to itself. Keep your head down and don’t try to achieve beyond your limits. That’s the lesson they wanted the kids to learn.

    1. I kept expecting one of the animals to walk past the finish line before the hare and poop out a piece of pineapple, thus making it the winner.

      1. Question number 9: When does a pineapple cease being a pineapple?

        Moral of the story: If that’s what it takes to get sleeves, I don’t want any.

        1. Or as Rene Magritte might have said, Ceci n’est pas un ananas.


          I’d link to the picture, but the link is too long….


          Oh, come on. I got rid of the link, and I’m still getting the error message. I bet it’s the accent aigu in Rene….

    2. I’d say the animals ate the pineapple because it was immobile and unable to defend itself. Be a moving target and pack heat — that’s the lesson the kids ought to learn from this.

    3. This, to be fair, is also a valuable life skill.

      For the society in Brazil or for Vogons. Not for a society that doesn’t want to experience a slow, stagnant extinction.

  8. The correct answer, of course, was “state twenty-six”, and then you would levitate the school.

    If you can’t get that right, you shouldn’t be answering Daniel Pinkwater questions.

    1. Such an awesome book! I just realized that I haven’t seen my copy in years.

      I think my brother must have taken it. Grrrr.

      1. I have this one. One of the few paper books I have still kept.

  9. Tangential: best kids’s show with a consistent theme about kids railing against the bureaucratic powers of public school: “recess”

  10. The correct answers all made sense to me.

    Blah, blah, blah, Let’s go Caps!

  11. Even without the extra garble asking kids to interpret modern novels and insisting on a correct answer is stupd. A better test might be asking thenm to read the manual for a sump pump. At least that’s useful.

    I imagine a paragraph like this: “Your basement is flooding, and your pump isn’t working. Your woman is making it clear that if you don’t deal with this you will never get any pussy again, ever, you pussy. What do you do?

    Best answer: call a plumber
    Second best answer: Smack that whiny bitch, get your tools out, and fix the problem.
    Failure: call a plumber..

    1. Second best answer: Smack that whiny bitch, get your tools out, switch off the main breaker, and fix the problem.


      1. Switch off the main breaker and go to the bar.

    2. Get a new woman. And a house not in a flood zone. In the meantime, call a plumber to deal with the lesser problem.

    3. Did we get linked by or something, today?

    4. Did we get linked by or something, today?

      1. That’s the second time that’s happened today!

  12. Condo residents warned about rioting at an upcoming NATO summit.…..t-20120420

    Again the differed conscience:

    “It’s just pretty shocking to see and hear things are going to be scary in your own home,” said resident Jeff Lunz. “I think they’ve got everyone’s best interest in mind.”

    If they had your best interest at heart they would not have the conferences in urban areas but on one of the dozens of NATO military bases, many possessing first rate accommodations, including the ready access to hookers that your modern bureaucrat demands.

    What’s that? You wouldn’t stick your dick where a common grunt or sailor has been? Only cities like Chicago, New York, Paris where high class escorts can be found are acceptable? I got news for you, Jack. The day before you came to town, that same five thousand dollar whore was slurping down on a rap star stuck with a virus J-Lo gave him a decade ago.

    1. It’s a little acknowledged fact that all the recent emphasis on anti-human-trafficking is really just a public health campaign aimed at politicians and diplomats.

  13. So, apparently “alternative-education guru” is the latest euphemism for “blithering idiot”.


    1. I have no idea, but it is a relief to find out that I am not the only living person in the western hemisphere awake at this hour and too bored to find anything other to do than post on political blogs.

  14. I got some “Alternative Education” for ya, if you know what I mean.

  15. Uh, that image looks suspiciously like a hand grenade with yellow paint.
    Perhaps there were other intentions involved?

    1. Then we had better call big sis Butchy. Ya know, see something, say something…

  16. you probably think Timothy McVeigh was executed.

    1. Voter number 95842, FUCK NO! Get a life you Al Goracle zombies!

  17. Fuck, Pantsfan, I just voted and noticed that we are nearly winning this vote on a wack-o neoliberal site. Cool!

    1. I hope this makes Al Gore become very depressed and reclusive.

      1. But guys, he’s super cereal! Plus I kind of feel bad for him, I don’t think he has any friends.

  18. Wall Street Journal Weekend says everyone is leaving California.

    1. What frightens me is to where they are going. I’ve noticed a tendency for Californians who flee to Californicate their destinations.

      “It didn’t work in Cali, but it will work here!”

      1. Got news for you.

        The people leaving the state now are the same eastern assholes that moved here in the 70s and fucked it up.

        I’m glad to see them leave and take there idiot ideas with them.

    2. Mr. Kotkin describes himself as an old fashioned Truman Democrat. In fact he voted for Mr. Brown who previously served as governor secretary of state and attorney general because he believed Mr. Brown was interesting and thought outside the box.

      Fool me once…

    3. The first thing that comes to many American minds when you mention California isn’t Hollywood or tanned girls on a beach, but Greece. Many progressives in California take that as a compliment since Greeks are ostensibly happier.

      Oh those happy Greeks! Nothing like a Molotov cocktail to bring joy to oneself.

      1. In a same world, other states would be soon changing their residency requirements for new transplants to prevent Californian expatriates from voting for at least a decade.

  19. lol, New York really is jsut cool like that.

  20. Pineapples? The only thing pineapples are good for, is for the Longshoreman’s Union to throw in the Delaware River in protest of Dole deciding not to use their state-subsidized, over-priced port in Camden, NJ.

    (True story)

  21. Read The Tyranny of Testing by Banesh Hoffman.

    If you had enough time, you could sit down and by conversing with a student, determine fairly how well the student knew the subject. Trouble is, you could never convince the students their grades were fair on that basis. Plus, you don’t have the time.

    Essay questions can’t be graded fairly and objectively. You would need some back and forth with the student to be sure each of you knew what the other meant. So that leaves objective or choice questions. But of course as you can see, there’s still plenty of room to go wrong with those.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.