Talking Pineapples and Test Bashing


Image courtesy of lifeplusvitamins.comThis past weekend, I read with great annoyance of the so-called Pineapple-gate” and the resulting weeklong standardized test-bashing echo chamber. Critics were calling for the trashing of the recent 8th grade ELA exam because of a nonsensical passage and questions about a talking pineapple challenging a hare to a marathon race.

I didn’t understand how 8th graders raised watching Sesame Street and SpongeBob could be flummoxed by a passage about a pineapple challenging a hare to a foot race. It’s a simple test of reading comprehension. The answer to every question is “telegraphed” in the passage. Students merely had to suspend disbelief and apply reading comprehension skills.

I was disappointed, however, in State Education Commissioner John King‘s decision to concede on the matter by invalidating that section of the test. I was especially disappointed after reading his remarks to the Staten Island Advance editorial board.

Commissioner King pointed out that the new Common Core curriculum emphasizes deeper and more critical thinking. He argued that reading and more reading, not test prep, will prepare students for academic success.

An OpEd laying out my case against the contrived controversy and efforts to thwart further education reform appears in today’s NY Post.

UPDATE: TIME.com has published Pearson’s letter to NYSED explaining the validity of the “hare and the pineapple” passage. Read it here. My OpEd was spot-on.

The great pineapple debacle

By MICHAEL BENJAMIN

Last Updated:2:17 AM, April 25, 2012

Critics of standardized tests and teacher evaluations have been having a field day with “pineapple-gate” — turning a single odd question into the symbol for “Testing Gone Wild.”

From all the noise, you’d think students were asked to calculate the cost of a night with a Colombian hooker.

In fact, it’s just a section on the eighth-grade reading exam. Students had to read a little story, then answer a few simple questions as a test of their reading-comprehension skills.

The tale involves a talking pineapple challenging a hare to a race, which prompts other forest creatures to debate what trick the pineapple has up its sleeve. (Tellingly, the owl points out that a pineapple has no sleeves.)

Upon losing the race, the pineapple is eaten. Opportunistic critics are trying to give State Ed Commissioner John King and testing company Pearson the same treatment. One even declared that it shows “the emperor [Mayor Bloomberg] has no clothes.”

Do critics think kids can’t handle talking animals and fruit? Children have been seeing things like that on Sesame Street for decades now; this is hardly forcing them to think outside the box.

OK, the passage was poorly written, and children had to make inferences to answer the questions. But that’s critical thinking, which our schools are supposed to teach.

The “pineapple” questions stumped even some educators, the critics claim. Well, yes. Lots of us have been warning that some teachers don’t make the grade.

Jumping on the bandwagon, one local paper published a critique by Ken Jennings, the former Jeopardy champion best known for losing to Watson, the IBM computer. Oops. Jennings’ article made false claims about the pineapple passage and questions. (Maybe Watson would’ve done a better job?)

Of course, the naysayers don’t just ask us to believe that a generation weaned on Big Bird and Spongebob are suddenly flummoxed by a talking pineapple. They allege that the entire test is flawed.

Indeed, as tests become more high-stakes, it’s hard to find any test the critics will accept. And they certainly don’t want the public to be able to use test-data to judge teachers.

An earlier generation of testing critics accused standardized tests of being racially and culturally biased against minority students. They called those tests worthless, too.

Then, over the last decade, the schools saw a vast influx of money under the Bush “No Child Left Behind” law as well as Bloomberg’s drive for systemwide reform. Both aimed to reduce the racial achievement gap — and both sought better, more rigorous testing as one means to that end.

The system’s vested interests welcomed the money — but they’ve bitterly resisted the testing and accountability needed to produce results.

Critics accuse the “educational-industrial complex” (government, reformers and testing firms) of making “billions off our kids and unnecessarily stressing them out,” in the words of Leonie Haimson of Class Size Matters.

Well, our childrenarebeing exploited by special interests — the ones intent on stopping education reform by any means necessary.

On the phony “pineapple” issue, King and Pearson folded in the face of ridicule; the questions won’t count on the test results. Let’s hope our leaders show more spine in the next education-reform fight.

The critical-thinking skills needed by our new economy require thinking outside the box. That’s what innovation is all about.

Securing education reform also requires thinking beyond the attacks of critics and realizing that they have no sleeves.

Read more: http://www.nypost.com/p/news/opinion/opedcolumnists/the_great_pineapple_debacle_4wONlS9ObnoZFH52oiV66K#ixzz1t45pde00

About SquarePegDem

A former state legislator turned NY Post editorial board member, thought-leader, public affairs consultant and commentator, columnist and blogger. Michael has appeared on Al Jazeera America Tonight, NY1/Inside City Hall, FoxNews.com LIVE, YNN/Capital Tonight, The Brian Lehrer Show, The Fred Dicker Show, The Capitol Press Room, and The Daily Show. His op-eds have appeared in the NY Post, City and State, The Legislative Gazette, Bronx Times, The Troy Record, Buffalo News, and the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. To schedule speaking engagements, email MBenjamin9@optimum.net.
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2 Responses to Talking Pineapples and Test Bashing

  1. Josh says:

    Thank you for demonstrating the very definition of the “cherry-picking” fallacy. By leaving out crucial pieces of information, the argument fails to show all sides and defeat the sides that you don’t agree with. First of all, have you even looked at the questions that were asked on the test? Find where you can find the answer for questions such as “The animals ate the pineapple most likely because they were…” or “Which animal spoke the wisest words?” While critical thinking is valuable and needs to be learned, are these the best questions to test that? “What would have happened if the animals had decided to cheer for the hare?” is an ambiguous question, and “When the moose said that the pineapple has some trick up its sleeve, he means that the pineapple…” is unfair to ELD learners who are trying to learn English, let alone idioms.

    You refer to Ken Jennings as “the former Jeopardy champion best known for losing to Watson, the IBM computer,” not mentioning that he won 74 games of Jeopardy and won over $2 million. With that in mind, a very intelligent person did not get those questions right.

    Look at the television ratings and you’ll see that there is no longer one central show that we can all talk about the next day like there used to be. This is the same with children’s programming, including Sesame Street and Spongebob.

    What is the opposite of light?
    A. Bright
    B. Dark
    C. Cold
    D. Heavy

    The answer to this question varied over the years, due to what people answered.

    You wrote that “The critical-thinking skills needed by our new economy require thinking outside the box.” For education reform to occur, we can’t base careers and student achievement on tests alone. To focus only on assessment is an embarrassment, as it only portrays a small part of the learning environment. To base everything on a story about a hare and a pineapple? And numerous other ambiguous questions on different tests, many mistakes not being fixed, because the testing companies have already “earned” their testing money from the government? Seems to me like we’re stuck in a pretty small box.

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    • Your message is a hodgepodge of false assumptions and errors in comprehension. I have all six questions as published by the NYDN. We should expect 8th graders to make simple inferences without having to spell out the answer. As for Ken Jennings, his OpEd was flippant and contained errors. Yes, I know that is a Jeopardy champion. Jeopardy is no longer a true test of knowledge since the answers always contain a clue to the question, which is something you seem to think the 8th grade ELA test should do also. Mr. Jennings lost to a machine that had to be programmed to make inferences from the clue-based answers.. Jennings seemed unable to make the inferences needed to answer the pineapple questions. The ambiguous question you posed about the opposite of light is irrelevant to this discussion. You are the distracting from your argument. In this case, comparing “pineapples” to oranges. But thanks for caring enough to write a comment.

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