Sunday, April 22, 2012

A Defense of Pineapples and Hares

There is copious brouhaha of late about a series of reading comprehension questions on a standardized test administered to 8th graders in New York State. I suspect that Daniel Pinkwater, the author of the story from which the exercise was adapted (but not of the piece itself), was not responsible for the headline in the New York Daily News that appears over his name, decrying “the world’s dumbest test question,” but he certainly gives the impression that he endorses the sentiment. An editorial in the same paper proclaims the selection “flunks the test of common sense,” refers to a “dumb question,” a “now-infamous question,” and a “lollapalooza of a damaging embarrassment.”

The New York Times is a little subtler: “When Pineapple Races Hare, Students Lose, Critics of Standardized Tests Say.” NPR pronounces two questions in particular as “bizarre.” New York magazine suggests the exam “gets trippy.” You get the idea.

The situation is confused even further by the fact that there are two different versions of the test question floating around. Both appear in the NPR article, linked above. NPR also points out that the Daily News changed the version that appears on its website, apparently without comment. Here’s a link to, presumably, the story exactly as it appears in the exam. I mean, if you can’t trust the authenticity of a pdf file of a document that explicitly forbids reproduction, what (and whom) can you trust?

OK, so where does that leave us? Well, there are problems, to be sure. A variation on the theme of this series of questions has apparently been making the rounds on Pearson-devised tests in other states for some time, and there has been outcry every time. It would be reasonable to suggest, therefore, that Pearson is more than a little arrogant (who knew?) in re-cycling a question that has been challenged previously. And the edits of Pinkwater’s original story show why he writes books for children and young adults, and the editor… erm… works for Pearson. Giving authorship “credit” to Pinkwater after rendering his tale less interesting and less coherent isn’t necessarily doing him any favors.

All that said, the furor is way overblown, especially if the “real” reading selection was what I presume it to be (since the other one has punctuation errors, I’m guessing it’s the fake). I say this as a staunch opponent of high-stakes testing and the accompanying teach-to-the-test mentality. The story is fine. Five of the six questions are fine, and the sixth… well, I got it right without much thought, but a). I’ve got a little more education than the average 8th-grader, b). interpreting text is what I do, and c). I wasn’t 100% confident of my answer.

One question that spawned some debate was #7: “The animals ate the pineapple most likely because they were: a). hungry b). excited c). annoyed d). amused.” There’s no mention of hunger, excitement, or amusement in the story. But the animals had tricked themselves into cheering for the pineapple in its race against the hare. One might reasonably surmise that, two hours into a race in which their chosen hero had not yet budged would lead to a little annoyance. C: annoyed. Final answer.

The question that has generated the biggest kerfuffle, however, is #8: “Which animal spoke the wisest words? a). the hare b). the moose c). the crow d). the owl.” I can see where someone reading the first version of the question to be distributed to the public (almost certainly not the one actually used on the test) would be confused, as there’s no owl at all in that story. But the no doubt real version is actually fairly clear. True, what the hare says isn’t dumb, but neither is it very profound. The moose and crow speak out of a paranoid suspicion of the Other, and are proved wrong in their beliefs. The leaves the owl, whose observation that “Pineapples don’t have sleeves” is true and both the literal and symbolic level, and is the stated moral of the story. The owl has the wisest words to say.

This is not to discount the uproar, but rather to re-contextualize it. The problem with this question isn’t that it’s “dumb,” or “bizarre,” or “trippy.” It may not be a great question, but it’s a good one. The problem is that it tests precisely what ought to be tested: not rote memorization or even mere vocabulary, but actual comprehension. Moreover, it commits the cardinal sin of being told in a rather flippant manner, with talking animals and headstrong flora. It is, in other words, even in the Pearson-ized version, kind of fun. You know, like the works of Aesop, and Aristophanes, and Jonathan Swift, and Alexander Pope, and Molière, and Lewis Carroll, and P.G. Wodehouse, and James Barrie, and….

You may color me unsurprised, Gentle Reader, that both sides of the debate over high-stakes testing, or educational accountability, or whatever you want to call it, are on the wrong side of this one. Both sides, you see, are more interested in winning political points than in being right. So those who would corporatize the educational system are using this phony issue to argue that the educationists need to be removed from power: look at the crazy stuff they want our kids to have to answer! Meanwhile, the teachers unions and similar folk revel in the same opportunity to claim that standardized tests themselves are the problem. I need hardly mention that I’m a lot closer to the latter mentality, and have been for a long time (here’s a link to a blog piece I wrote nearly seven years ago).

But the consternation over wise owls and annoyed animals isn’t justified. What has happened is in fact an indictment of the status quo, but not for the reasons being advanced by anyone I’ve seen weigh in on the issue. The problem is that anything outside the norm, anything that treats learning as a process rather than a collection of data, anything, in short, that has the slightest bit to do with actual education: this isn’t what students or teachers expect to see on tests. The T^4 (Teach To The Test) mentality cannot function in a world in which creativity, reasoning, and openness are prioritized over memorization, formula application, and test-taking strategies.

There is, moreover, nothing wrong with asking a question most appropriate to a grade level slightly above that of the students taking the test. How else are we to distinguish the truly accomplished from the merely proficient? And if identifying excellence isn’t a goal of these tests, it bloody well should be.

The crux of the situation is that, however much they bellow to the contrary, virtually everyone—teachers, students, education critics, journalists, everyone—really thinks education works best if it turns out Jeopardy champions instead of novelists, physicists, and sociologists. It’s neater, cleaner, less work, and far easier to measure. No one knows how to react when the paradigm is a little different than what’s been experienced already. “That wasn’t on the practice test” is somehow regarded as an inherently legitimate complaint.

The question about which animal speaks the wisest words is mildly problematic because of its failures as a determinant of student success: the second-best answer is a little too appealing. But ultimately, that’s not what the ululation is about. The real problem with the question in the minds of the critics is that it seeks to find out precisely what it should be seeking to find out. It demonstrates by contrast everything that is wrong with the country’s fetishistic craving for standardization in education. And that heresy cannot be tolerated.

No comments: