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Posted at 02:58 PM ET, 04/20/2012

Talking pineapples and unanswerable questions


The animals eat the pineapple. (Marvin Joseph - WASHINGTON POST)
Pineapples don’t have sleeves.

This is the concluding moral of a reading comprehension test question actually posed to eighth graders across the country — most recently, in New York state.

The story, The Pineapple and the Hare, features a pineapple who challenges a hare to a race. “How could an immobile fruit win a race?” the other animals wonder. But the crow points out that perhaps this is what the pineapple wants them to think. Maybe it wants them to root for the hare so it can embarrass them when it prevails. No doubt, the crow insists, the pineapple has something up its sleeve. They decide to cheer for the pineapple and foil its plan. Of course, the pineapple does not move, and the hare wins.

The animals eat the pineapple.

Then come the questions.

Why did the animals eat the pineapple?

(A. They were annoyed. B. They were amused. C. They were hungry. D. They wanted to.)

Who is the wisest?

(A. The hare. B. The moose. C. The crow. D. The owl.)

Yes, really.

This may well go down in the annals of history as the least comprehensible reading comprehension question of all time.

This question has been administered all over the country to baffled schoolchildren. There’s even a Facebook group celebrating it.

I can't find and verify a copy of the exact question text. The only one online (the one the Daily News quotes) sounds excruciatingly colloquial and since you can’t take the booklets home, I assume that it was reconstructed by a student after leaving the test.

The state confirmed that the question was on the test but did not elaborate.

Reading comprehension passages are supposed to be hard to comprehend, not literally incomprehensible.

Ken Jennings put it mildly when he said, “Is this a joke? The story makes no sense whatsoever. The narrative has no internal logic, the ‘moral’ is unclear, and the plot details seems so oddly chosen that the story seems to have been written during a peyote trip. (The prose is clunky too, but I hate to pile on.)”

It is hard to improve on that description.

“The pineapple’s motivation is so murky and behavior so inexplicable that it’s impossible to even know what ‘wisdom’ would mean in this bizarre universe of nonlinear action,” Jennings notes.

No wonder the story’s blowing up.

This is everyone’s worst test-taking nightmare. It has an absurd, dream logic to it. Who was the wisest? Why did they eat the pineapple? This is the sort of riddle Snake-Headed Woman poses to you when you fall asleep after eating anchovies.

This sounds like something Yoko Ono would tweet. This sounds like something Ted Nugent would say to a crowd of NRA members.

If your eighth grader can comprehend this, this is cause for concern. It is a sign that he is doing serious drugs.

This is like requiring the eighth graders to tell you the sound of one hand clapping, or describe the noise a tree makes falling in the forest with no one to hear.

It would be a satire of the test-taking process, but it’s a real question.

Tests are vastly important these days.

Teaching to the test may or may not work, but it certainly won’t unless the test actually measures a skill that it is possible to obtain and isn’t a Surrealist nightmare of sleeveless fruit.

In its contract with Pearson, the company behind this maddening question, New York stipulated that on tests “The material ... have characters that are portrayed as positive role models, have a positive message and be well written.”

It certainly violated that contract.

But this points to a larger concern.

So much is based on test scores these days. If they are meaningless — if all this seemingly incontrovertible hard data measures nothing more than an ability to guess a test-maker’s feelings about racing pineapples — then chaos prevails. We gaze into the abyss, and the abyss squints back and whispers, “Probably not the owl.”

With admissions rates to Elite Institutions dropping every year, the criteria for selection are increasingly random. Nothing guarantees admission — not perfect scores, not ground-breaking inventions. You can only do your best, wait, and hope. Perhaps the pineapple writer is right. Abandon all pretenses of merit and order.

This is everyone’s nightmare — you answer poorly written, meandering questions about pineapples with or without sleeves, and then the rest of your life you are judged by the number that results.

“You just have to give it your best answer,” said New York eighth grader Tyree Furman. “These are important tests.”

I wish I were making this up.

By  |  02:58 PM ET, 04/20/2012

 
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