Policy

New York State Throws Students a Pineapple

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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.