The pineapple, the eggplant, and the missed moral

Leonie Haimson—a vocal ed-reform critic—helped generate a media firestorm about testing recently when she posted about an absurd passage that was included on this year’s New York State eighth grade ELA test. The post itself generated more than 2,000 hits in its first few hours and led to a New York Daily News article entitled “Talking pineapple question on state exam stumps ... everyone!

pineapple
The citrus fruit that rocked education reform.
 Photo by Richard North.

The passage on the exam needs to be read in full to be believed. It’s a perfect storm of bad writing, poor structure, and inexplicable questions. If you haven’t read it—and you should—it’s enough to know that the moral of the story—included in bold at the end—is this:

Moral of the story: Pineapples don't have sleeves.

Haimson and her fellow testing foes are right to call out this passage as ridiculous. And critics of accountability can and should play this role, helping surface problems and draw attention to the need for change.

But the real outrage among those of us who care deeply about accountability is why these problems aren’t being caught earlier. For too long, we have been focusing our attention on expanding the use of tests to more grades and more subject areas and increasing the consequences tied to the results of these tests without taking a hard look at the uneven quality of the tests themselves.

So let’s dig a little deeper. A lot of attention has been paid to the company that is responsible for the question (Pearson) and the length of time it has been around (seven years across exams used in Florida, Illinois, Delaware, New Mexico, Arkansas, and Alabama).

More interesting, however, is how this passage came to be included in the assessment in the first place. It turns out that the passage that was included on the state exams was not at all what the author himself had written. (See here and scroll down to the author’s—Daniel’s—reply.)

The original story was far shorter and was, frankly, far more interesting. (For one thing, the moral of the actual story—“Never bet on an eggplant”—actually makes some sense in the context of the original passage!) I am still not convinced it’s appropriate for a state test, but it comes much closer.

The author himself has no idea why the story was changed, though I’d be willing to bet it was to make the language somehow more politically correct. Whatever the reason, someone on the editorial staff made the change and then it passed through whatever stringent review process Pearson has in place without further edits to allow it to make sense again.

I’m sure this story will only add fuel to the anti-testing fire, and frankly, it’s hard to argue that it shouldn’t. After all, how can we possibly hold students accountable to such poorly written questions aligned to such poorly written prose?

In the end, though, I think this points to how sloppy testing companies—and no doubt some education reformers—have gotten in the rush to meet the demand for so many tests on such tight budgets. If we expect students and teachers to be held to higher standards, then we sure had best do the same for ourselves. And the starting point is taking the production of tests and test items much more seriously than we have to date.

Moral of the story: Never allow a pineapple to trump reason.

Updated April 26, 2011.

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