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Answer Sheet
Posted at 02:00 AM ET, 04/25/2012

The meaning of the ‘talking pineapple’ test question

This was written by Kevin G. Welner, a professor of education policy and program evaluation in the School of Education at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and director of the National Education Policy Center. The center is housed at the university’s School of Education and sponsors research, produces policy briefs, and publishes expert third party reviews of think tank reports.

By Kevin G. Welner

While not quite rising to the level of fame of the Apple, the once-lowly pineapple has been grapping a few headlines of its own.

For those who haven’t yet seen the weird pineapple story that ended up on New York’s state test for eighth graders, here’s a run-down, courtesy of Valerie Strauss at The Answer Sheet:

 A question about a “talking pineapple” on a standardized reading test given to eighth-grade students in New York has sparked something of an uproar among students and adults who say it doesn’t make any sense. And because of all the fuss, now the state’s education commissioner says the question won’t be counted in students’ scores.

The question, reported by the New York Daily News, referred to a story similar to the famous Aesop fable about the tortoise and the hare, but in this version, a talking pineapple challenges a hare to race. The rabbit wins, not surprisingly, as the fruit can’t actually move, and other animals, who have wagered on the winner, eat the pineapple, according to the paper.

 Students were asked some perplexing questions: Why did the animals eat the talking fruit, and which animal was wisest?

Personally, I enjoy absurdist literature. But I also understand why the New York kids who took this test under very high-stakes conditions were confused and upset (taking their frustration and even outrage to Facebook and elsewhere). And I understand why parents and teachers were perplexed and angry as well.

The story is – I think – sort of fun. But it’s fun precisely because it’s absurd. How could such an item, for which many adults struggled to choose a logical answer, be used to make incredibly high-stakes judgments about students, teachers and schools? At the end of the day, the students’ responses to questions about this story will be used to judge the relative merits of different schools, teachers, and principals.

And it’s here that I think my criticism of the test item differs from many of those who are attacking the talking (and, it should be noted: sleeveless) pineapple. Though this pineapple presents a vivid example of how weird these tests can be, the question really isn’t significantly more problematic than any other question. Yes, it’s more absurd than other questions, but it’s not substantially worse. Each question has strengths and weaknesses, and test developers do their best to create an overall test that can then be used to assess a student’s skills and knowledge.

The problem isn’t this item. In fact, the problem isn’t even the tests themselves. The problem is that policymakers have decided to use these tests for purposes that are far beyond the tests’ capacity. The problem is that policymakers have decided to make tests the focus of schooling.

And if it takes a confusing, sleeveless pineapple to illustrate how nonsensical those policies are, then perhaps instead of asking eighth graders why the animals ate the talking fruit, we might ask policymakers why they are letting tests eat our school system.

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By  |  02:00 AM ET, 04/25/2012

 
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