Whee, another fun post to add to my litany about how stupid the questions on standardized tests are! Daniel Pinkwater (author of a bunch of funny books for kids including The Hoboken Chicken Emergency and Beautiful Yetta: The Yiddish Chicken — the latter was named the #1 Jewish Picture book of 2010 in Tablet Magazine, you may recall) has an entertaining and pathetic essay in the New York Daily News about how a chunk from one of his novels was taken out of context, rewritten into gibberish and turned into an incoherent source of questions for the New York State Eighth Grade English Language Arts test. Not a single line of what was attributed to Pinkwater was actually written by Pinkwater, though the (I don’t know what to call it — semi-coherent narrative? nonsense essayette? drug-addled story-esque item?) thing had his name on it.
The mini-story was a retelling of the Tortoise and the Hare, with the tortoise replaced by a pineapple. The pineapple challenges the rabbit to a race, the animals all debate whether the pineapple is messing with them what with its lack of limbs, the rabbit wins and the animals all band together to eat the pineapple. The test questions: Why did the animals eat the pineapple? Which animal was the wisest? Buh?
The testers took a deliberately silly piece, made it not-deliberately sillier, and then asked completely unanswerable questions about it. I have pointed out similar asking-unanswerable-questions issues in my blog in the past.
Pinkwater found out about the Big #2 Pencil Splot when distressed children started writing to him to ask him what the answer was, or to inform him that his story was idiotic. After the brouhaha, Pinkwater reconsidered his decision to sell his work to testing companies to make hamburger out of, and the state opted not to count the answers to the Pineapple Question in the kids’ total scores. (By the way, the answers are that the animals ate the pineapple because they were annoyed, and that the owl was the wisest animal. Ironically, as the Daily News points out, NYC Schools Chancellor Dennis Wolcott is allergic to pineapple.)
Again: I reiterate that I do not think the entire notion of standardized testing is bad. I think it’s a fine factor to add in to other elements that together make a picture of how a child is learning. But tests today are being wildly misused — they are too frequent; they have too much impact on the lives of students, teachers and schools, all of whom can be punished severely for perceived lack of awesomeness on tests; and they are taking time away from meaningful learning. When people defend testing as a necessary evil, I have to keep reiterating that if the tests were decent tests, they might have an argument, but THE TESTS ARE OFTEN SEMI-LITERATE. Here are a couple of examples from my daughter’s third-grade ELA practice book a couple of years ago. I am a magna cum laude Harvard grad with two degrees in reading-and-writing heavy disciplines and I am not sure I answered some of those questions correctly. Why? Because they are EXCEEDINGLY STUPIDLY WRITTEN.