Writing in his TIME Magazine column, Andy “Eduwonk” Rotherham offers up a largely exculpatory take on Pineapplegate. The media jumped all over a bowdlerized version of the test passage, he notes. New York state officials should have been clearer in explaining that nothing makes its way onto standardized tests by accident. And in the end, Andy writes, what is needed is “a more substantive conversation rather than a firestorm” over testing.
Very well, let’s have one.
In the unlikely event you haven’t heard, a minor media frenzy was ignited a few weeks back when the New York Daily News got hold of a surreal fable, loosely modeled on the familiar tale of the Tortoise and the Hare, which appeared on the just-administered New York State 8th grade reading test. In the test passage, a talking pineapple challenges a hare to a foot race in front of a group of woodland creatures, loses the race (the pineapple’s lack of legs proving to be a fatal competitive disadvantage) and gets eaten by the other animals.
Rotherham points out that the passage picked up by the paper was not the actual test passage, but a second-hand version plucked from an anti-testing website. “The passage the paper ran was so poorly written that it would indeed have been inexcusable,” he wrote. Perhaps, but the correct passage wasn’t exactly a model of clarity and coherence either. Indeed, the fable’s author mocked the decision by the testing company, Pearson, to create multiple choice questions about his story on a state test. “As far as I am able to ascertain from my own work, there isn’t necessarily a specifically assigned meaning in anything,” Daniel Pinkwater told the Wall Street Journal. “That really is why it’s hilarious on the face of it that anybody creating a test would use a passage of mine, because I’m an advocate of nonsense. I believe that things mean things but they don’t have assigned meanings.”
Ultimately the real version of the test passage was released by the state to quiet the controversy. But it did little to reverse the impression that this was a questionable measure of students’ ability. Rotherham’s big “get” in Time is a memo from Pearson to New York State officials detailing the question’s review process as well as its use on other states’ tests as far back as 2004. The message: nothing to see here, folks. Show’s over. Go on back to your schools, sharpen those No. 2 pencils and get ready for more tests.
“Standardized tests are neither as bad as their critics make them out to be nor as good as they should be,” Rotherham concludes. Perhaps, but they’re bad enough. The principal problem, which Pineapplegate underscores vividly, is that we continue to insist on drawing conclusions about students’ reading ability based on a random, incoherent collection of largely meaningless passages concocted by test-makers utterly disconnected from what kids actually learn in school all day. This actively incentivizes a form of educational malpractice, since reading tests reinforce the mistaken notion that reading comprehension is a transferable skill and that the subject matter is disconnected from comprehension. But we know this is not the case as E.D. Hirsch and Dan Willingham have pointed out time and again, and as we have discussed on this blog repeatedly.
So this is not a simple case of an uproar based on bad information and sloppy damage control. What Rotherham misses in a somewhat strident defense of standardized tests and testing is that we are suffering generally from a case of test fatigue. The entire edifice of reform rests on testing, and while the principle of accountability remains sound, the effects of testing on schools has proven to be deleterious, to be charitable. Thus the conditions were ripe for people to overreact to perceived absurdity in the tests. And that’s exactly what happened here.
Was the story was blown out of proportion by some people playing fast and loose with the facts? Perhaps. But the facts, once they became clear, were more than bad enough.