This 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.