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A couple of days ago my social networks exploded with chatter about the story that a crazy passage about a talking pineapple had appeared on a New York state reading exam for eighth-graders. Words like "weird," "absurd," and "crap" flew around. One friend-of-a-friend averred, "I'm not sure there's any such thing as a good reading-comprehension question."

As it happens, I made a sizeable chunk of my income in the mid-'00s as the lead developer of the SAT reading program for a major test prep company. I have written hundreds of these things. And my take on all this has proven to be somewhat different from most that I've encountered.

The first article I saw about this only presented a handful of lines from the offending passage, and what I saw reminded me of the infamous "Vortex of Itchy Doom" story that I fought to have removed from our materials back in 2002-03. The company had received a contract to send tutors into schools, have them sit down with 11th-graders who had failed their (extremely simple) high school exit exams three times already, and prepare them to retake the tests for a fourth and, if necessary, fifth time. These were kids who were on the verge of dropping out and would rather have been anywhere but in our supplementary classes. The solution our developers hit on: fill the practice materials with wacky "humor" of the sort delighted in by extremely nerdy ten-year-olds! Surely that would make these kids love coming to class and wouldn't confirm their suspicion that school is a stupid waste of time!

But then I ran across a link to the full story as it appeared in the exam. Since it's offered for public perusal on a government web site and has appeared in its entirety in newspaper articles, I assume it's okay for me to reproduce it here:

"The Pineapple and the Hare"

      In olden times, the animals of the forest could speak English just like you and me. One day, a pineapple challenged a hare to a race.
      (I forgot to mention, fruits and vegetables were able to speak too.)
      A hare is like a rabbit, only skinnier and faster. This particular hare was known to be the fastest animal in the forest.
      "You, a pineapple, have the nerve to challenge me, a hare, to a race?" the hare asked the pineapple. "This must be some sort of joke."
      "No," said the pineapple. "I want to race you. Twenty-six miles, and may the best animal win."
      "You aren't even an animal!" the hare said. "You're a tropical fruit!"
      "Well, you know what I mean," the pineapple said.
      The animals of the forest thought it was very strange that a tropical fruit should want to race a very fast animal.
      "The pineapple has some trick up its sleeve," a moose said.
      "Pineapples don't have sleeves," an owl said.
      "Well, you know what I mean," the moose said. "If a pineapple challenges a hare to a race, it must be that the pineapple knows some secret trick that will allow it to win."
      "The pineapple probably expects us to root for the hare and then look like fools when it loses," said a crow. "Then the pineapple will win the race because the hare is
overconfident and takes a nap, or gets lost, or something."
      The animals agreed that this made sense. There was no reason a pineapple should challenge a hare unless it had a clever plan of some sort. So the animals, wanting to back a winner, all cheered for the pineapple.
      When the race began, the hare sprinted forward and was out of sight in less than a minute. The pineapple just sat there, never moving an inch.
      The animals crowded around, watching to see how the pineapple was going to cleverly beat the hare. Two hours later, when the hare crossed the finish line, the pineapple was still sitting still, and hadn't moved an inch.
      The animals ate the pineapple.

MORAL: Pineapples don't have sleeves.

The questions that attracted the most attention were these:
7. The animals ate the pineapple most likely because they were
(A) hungry
(B) excited
(C) annoyed
(D) amused

8. Which animal spoke the wisest words?
(A) The hare
(B) The moose
(C) The crow
(D) The owl

Among the general public, the reaction I saw boiled down to "What a stupid passage! How can something like that be on a test? Look, even Daniel Pinkwater, who wrote the story on which the pineapple passage is based, says the new version is 'nonsense on top of nonsense'!" Among my former colleagues in the test prep industry, the reaction was also negative, but quite a bit different. Their response was that these questions were invalid — i.e., they do not meet the criteria that a reading comprehension question on a standardized test must meet.

I am probably undermining my potential tutoring income by giving away my material here, but the way I have introduced standardized test reading comp to my students goes like this. Companies such as ETS that produce standardized tests employ two types of people: psychologists and lawyers. The psychologists develop questions that, they contend, measure certain mental skills. The lawyers make sure the answers to those questions can hold up in court against litigious parents. A lawyer for one of these companies can't very well say, "The plaintiff argues that the answer to #29 is (D). We contend that it's (C). Your honor — doesn't (C) just feel right to you? Don't you just kinda look at it and say, 'Yeah, gotta be (C)'?" That wouldn't fly. So the answer pretty much has to be a paraphrase of something that's right there in the passage. The lawyer needs to be able to point at the key phrase and say, "Your honor, any reasonable person who read and understood line 52 would agree that the answer is (C)." Here's the sort of thing I'm talking about:

Crows and their relatives reproduce at roughly the same stringent rate though periods of bounty or austerity, maintaining levels of population that are modest but consistent, and which can be supported throughout any foreseeable hard times. One consequence of such modesty of demographic ambition is to leave them with excess time, and energy, not desperately required for survival. Take my word for it: Crows are bored. And so there arise, as recorded in the case file, these certain … no, symptoms is too strong. Call them, rather, patterns of gratuitous behavior. They show the most complex play known in birds.

1. According to the passage, how would the birth rate in a crow population be affected if food became easier for the crows to find?
(A) It would increase, because the crows could support more offspring.
(B) It would decrease, because the crows would want to keep the food for themselves.
(C) It would increase and then decrease, as the crows would reproduce too much, deplete the food source, and face starvation.
(D) It would remain fairly stable.

The answer is (D). No matter how much you might want to argue for one of the other answers based on your pre-existing knowledge of ecology, the passage says, "Crows and their relatives reproduce at roughly the same stringent rate though periods of bounty or austerity." If "food became easier for the crows to find," that equates to a "period of bounty"; the passage says that during such a period, crows would "reproduce at roughly the same stringent rate." You cannot reasonably argue that the answer is anything other than (D), based on the passage.

My friends from the test prep world objected that the pineapple questions don't work this way. Where is the phrase you can point to that sums up why the animals ate the pineapple? Where is the phrase you can point to that declares which animal is the wisest? On the SAT or ACT, for instance, the passage would say that one of the animals was "renowned for its sagacity," and you could point to that and say, there, based on this evidence from the passage, we know that this animal is the wisest. To say that the owl must be the wisest because folklore tells us that owls are wise? That's outside knowledge! And cultural bias to boot! To say that the owl must be the wisest because the moral repeats what the owl said? Circumstantial evidence! The owl was probably just joking! And who says the "moral" is wise, anyway?

To my mind, this is a problem. Creators of reading comp sections on standardized tests aim to write them such that outside knowledge is neither required nor helpful, lest they devolve into tests of whether students have spent their childhoods steeped in the "right" environment. But here's the thing. These passages are not written from whole cloth specifically for these tests. They are adapted from published works: novels, magazine articles, newspaper stories, opinion columns. And when people in the real world write stuff, in nearly all cases, they are attempting to add to an existing discourse. Similarly, reading is, to a great extent, an exercise in hooking up new information to your existing knowledge base. A reading comp test that denies the importance of context isn't a test of whether students understand what they read. It's a test of whether they can parse.

Back when I was an active tutor, I used to talk about this from time to time on the teachers' forum one of my colleagues set up. Here's an example from back in 2008. I'd spent the afternoon working with a student on a reading comp passage that contrasted Harriet Jacobs with Frederick Douglass, arguing that gender was a dominant factor in the types of antislavery appeals each was able to make. It was a perfect example of what I've been talking about: if you don't know anything about traditional American gender roles, you may still be able to get some questions right through test-prep tricks, but you won't actually understand what you're reading.

One sentence early on said: "Frederick Douglass, for instance, firmly identified himself with the triumph of manliness and individualism that slavery suppressed." When I read that, my immediate thought was, "Yeah, it's hard to argue that a man's home is his castle when he's living in a shack in the back of a plantation." The reason I was able to immediately rephrase the point in my own terms is that I was already familiar with the ideology of masculine independence. I asked my student whether she had ever heard the phrase "a man's home is his castle," and she shrugged; I asked whether it meant anything to her and she suggested that maybe it had to do with people wanting big houses. It was the same story when we moved on to Jacobs and the way that she had to couch her arguments in the language of domesticity. I asked my student whether she'd ever heard the phrase "a woman's place is in the home," and she wasn't sure. She had gathered that antebellum women didn't have the same rights as men, but this just led her to choose trap answers suggesting that Jacobs was fighting for women's rights. In fact, the passage made almost the opposite claim: that because the suffragette movement lay far in the future, Jacobs had had to base her appeals on the notion that slavery was keeping her from fulfilling her proper role as the angel of the house. Again, this made sense to me because I was already familiar with "the cult of true womanhood." My student wasn't. When the passage said flat-out that in in Jacobs's time, even women believed in "natural differences" between the sexes, the words didn't register for my student, because it had never occurred to her that anyone might accept a position of inferiority. In a sense, this is wonderfully cheering, but for the purposes at hand, it was a big problem. Even if you're a strong reader, if you don't know anything about pre-feminist America, you're going to go into this passage with all the wrong assumptions, and thus fail to understand it. And even if the questions are ostensibly written not to penalize a lack of outside knowledge, if you really don't understand the passage at all, you will likely end up bombing the section.

Which brings me back to the pineapple passage. It is, very obviously, a commentary on the fable of the tortoise and the hare. If you don't get that, you are pretty much out of luck here. Note that the test makers changed Pinkwater's "rabbit" to "hare," in order to make it even clearer that the fable of the tortoise and the hare is our starting point, and then had to explain what a hare is. Even with all the alterations — I would even say because of some of the alterations — it's a great story! People on the social networks may call it nonsense, and Pinkwater may slip into humble-author mode and call it nonsense, but it is clearly not nonsense at all. It's a fable about the danger of overthinking things. Stories like the original fable of the tortoise and the hare condition us to think that every story will have a twist ending, and that when characters say or do something that seems stupid, it will turn out to be a clever ruse. (I've made my living the last five years writing screenplays full of "Oh no, the hero has been captured! Ha ha, he wanted to be captured! It was all a clever ruse!" It's part of the formula.) But in the vast majority of cases, the passage is arguing, when people say or do something that seems stupid, it's because they're stupid. Don't go all Wallace Shawn and think everyone is playing 11-dimensional chess all the time. Don't try to figure out what trick the pineapple has up its sleeve. Pineapples don't have sleeves.

As to the answers to the questions: The animals clearly ate the pineapple because they had overthought things, wound up looking like idiots in doing so, felt humiliated, and in typical fashion turned those negative feelings outward upon a convenient scapegoat — in this case, the pineapple that was the first mover in the chain of events leading to their humiliation. I know this not because it's a paraphrase of a clause in the passage that I can point at, but because I recognize a commentary on human nature when I see one. This may not be the sort of argument that would satisfy an ETS lawyer, but I would submit that the ability to intuitively pick up subtext is a big part of what constitutes being good at reading literature. Similarly, the wisdom question seems pretty straightforward to me: the owl is the wisest, because "pineapples don't have sleeves" is a wise thing to say, and the owl is the one who says it. I say that "pineapples don't have sleeves" is a wise thing to say not because it's explicitly identified as the moral, but because, in context, it makes the wisdom-recognition centers of my brain light up, the same way they do when I encounter wise passages in other works of literature.

So I don't really have an issue with the passage or the questions. They don't work as traditional standardized test items, but if you ask me, that's not much of a criticism. I would say that the real problem, and what is really responsible for this kerfuffle, is the whole social apparatus surrounding these poor unloved test items. See, I can say what I think the answers are. I can, on the basis of a dialogue with a student, evaluate that student's skill at comprehending this story. Based on my résumé, you might put some stock in my opinion. Or you might not! I speak only with whatever authority my reputation provides. This test, by contrast, is supposed to speak for the State of New York. If you live in New York, and you don't agree with the official answers, or you think the questions are stupid, or you think that no amount of bubble-filling can substitute for the in-person, expert opinion of a teacher, you may well be angry that this test is being given in your name. Especially when the stakes are your child's academic record and the future earning power that is in part pegged to it. But that's the fault of our culture for its warped sense of what constitutes education and what role it should play in our society. It's not the fault of the testing company. The testing company did its job, and compared to a lot of other efforts I've seen, did it pretty well.

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Comment Preferences

  •  If the story was a commentary on human nature (4+ / 0-)

    I can see why parents would be upset with the test questions. In the US today, the pineapple wouldn't have been eaten. Despite his obvious lack of sleeves he would continue to be admired and praised and perhaps find himself elected to public office or voted in as the CEO. The owl would be smeared in the press and accused of falsifying his data while the hare would be soon forgotten. Actual achievement doesn't count in a society driven by the cult of personality and celebrity and yummy pineapple goodness.

    How many eighth graders have a full understanding of human nature? Even at my age I find myself discovering from time to time that what I think is the motivation behind someone's actions often turns out not to be the case. Sometimes animals eat pineapples just because they're hungry.

    Excellent diary. I really enjoyed it!

    Not this mind and not this heart, I won't rot • Mumford & Sons

    by jayden on Sun Apr 22, 2012 at 01:40:34 PM PDT

    •  grade level (3+ / 0-)

      "How many eighth graders have a full understanding of human nature?"

      Someone on Twitter asked me a similar question. Obviously, no one, eighth-graders or eighty-year-olds, has a full understanding of human nature. But I would argue that if we're leaving 14-year-olds unprepared even to grapple with such issues, in favor of mechanical locate-and-paraphrase "reading comprehension," perhaps we ought to adjust the curriculum.

      •  The test questions/answers require students (3+ / 0-)

        to jump to a very cynical conclusion about "human nature" without any evidence other than personal experience. Fortunately I didn't grow up around too many people who took their personal failings out on innocent pineapples. Those that needed to lash out tended to smash pumpkins.

        Not this mind and not this heart, I won't rot • Mumford & Sons

        by jayden on Sun Apr 22, 2012 at 02:41:04 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  Hmmm..... (5+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    jayden, princesspat, NYFM, Smoh, elfling

    I think the animals ate the pineapple because they were -

    (A) hungry

    (Had they been annoyed, yet full, they probably would have just stomped the shit out of the pineapple.)

    Interesting presentation of the design of such tests and the cultural biases which are hard to exclude from these sorts questions.

    The important and difficult job is never to find the right answers, it is to find the right question. For there are few things as useless–if not dangerous–as the right answer to the wrong question. -- P. Drucker

    by The Angry Architect on Sun Apr 22, 2012 at 02:40:12 PM PDT

    •  This is where storytelling experience comes in (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      The Angry Architect, jayden, Smoh

      (sorry if this is a duplicate - it looks like my first reply got eaten)

      "Had they been annoyed, yet full, they probably would have just stomped the shit out of the pineapple."

      I disagree. I've been in enough story conferences to know that if I pitched a version of the story that ended with the animals stomping the pineapple, the first thing the head writer would say is, "Shouldn't they eat it? It's a pineapple!" And it's true: eating the pineapple makes for a punchier ending. Imagine if the story ended like this:

           The animals crowded around, watching to see how the pineapple was going to cleverly beat the hare. Two hours later, when the hare crossed the finish line, the pineapple was still sitting still, and hadn't moved an inch.
            The animals smashed the pineapple.
      That is much less funny, and thereby makes the story a lot worse. The animals eating the pineapple has nothing to do with whether they were hungry or not. It's about poetic justice, or poetic injustice as the case may be.

      Now, like the commenter above, you can ask, "How many eighth-graders have experience punching up scripts?", and that'd be a fair point. But I'd say that, one, that objection speaks as much to the curriculum as to the test - why are we teaching literature at all if we don't teach what makes a story better or worse? - and two, like I suggest in the article, the real issue here is the format of the test. No bubble-in test can substitute for some sort of dialogue that allows the grader to evaluate the student's reasoning.

  •  Thanks for an interesting analysis (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    jayden, Smoh

    of an esoteric area of thought, that I probably wouldn't have considered otherwise. This is one of the big things I love about this place. Sure, politics, more and better Democrats, I'm there, no problem. But it's essays like this that really keep me here. I get to have a conversation about the damnedest things, with someone who really knows their stuff, and generously shares all that with us. Thanks for that. The considerable time and care you took in writing all this up is very much appreciated.

  •  My son with autism (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    jayden, Smoh, elfling

    picked "hungry".  Because the animals watched the race for two hours, and two hours without eating for an owl or a crow -- both in the bird family -- is one heck of a long time.

    When a test question dangles around the edges of what you already know rather than what it offers in the "passage above", the answer is like a box of chocolates:  you never know what you're going to get.

    By the way, he passed the NYS Regents in High School English on his second try.  But you can see why it was interesting prepping him....

    Thanks for the inside info.

    •  Yep, I've been there (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      "But you can see why it was interesting prepping him...."

      Yes, in my tutoring career (active 1994-2010, occasional 2010-present) I've had many students at various points on the autism spectrum. Interestingly, their approach to reading comprehension questions could sometimes be an asset - many standardized tests include a large number of "ah ah, you can't assume that!" questions that didn't fool these students for a second.

  •  This was really terrific! (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    I'm a psychologist who specializes in learning and learning disabilities. I found this fascinating.  I hate the find and paraphrase crap; it teaches nothing and is certainly not "comprehension".  I did know nearly enough of the strategies used in test making and this was very informative for me.  Thanks!

    Cats are better than therapy, and I'm a therapist.

    by Smoh on Sun Apr 22, 2012 at 05:36:33 PM PDT

  •  It's a great story (0+ / 0-)

    I loved it.

    But as a reading comprehension item, I think it's dreadful.

    Yes, owls are wise, and the owl happens to have the line that's the moral of the story.

    But, the owl would say the same thing if he didn't know the idiom of "something up your sleeve," for example. You don't get the sense from the story that the owl knows what will happen any more than any of the other animals.

    The hare's words are pretty wise too. "This must be some kind of joke" and "You aren't even an animal! You're a tropical fruit!" sum up the theme of the story as accurately, and you can make the case that the hare was clearly not overthinking here. :-)

    Ask yourself - what are you trying to test here? What gap in ability are you uncovering if a student misses these questions?

    Since I know testmakers tend to be lazy and don't like to overthink things, I would have correctly guessed the owl. But just because I know that's the "Correct Answer" doesn't make it true.

    Fry, don't be a hero! It's not covered by our health plan!

    by elfling on Mon Apr 23, 2012 at 10:14:41 AM PDT

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