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The Puzzling Parable of the Hare and the Pineapple

The Puzzling Parable of the Hare and the Pineapple

The next time you hear a student or teacher criticizing standardized tests, saying they don’t accurately reflect what students have learned in class, well…you’ll be hard-pressed to deny they may have a point. Students and teachers in Manhattan are still scratching their heads over a question that appeared on an eighth-grade reading assessment about a race between a hare and a talking pineapple.

In the story, inspired by the fable of the tortoise and the hare, a pineapple challenges a hare to a race. Because the fruit has no legs and can’t run, it loses the race, and the animals of the forest eat it. Some of the questions are simple enough, asking about the mechanics of the passage, but a couple are perplexing: the test asks why the animals ate the pineapple, and which animal was the wisest. (You can see the test and questions scanned directly from the booklet here.)

After a few days of public outcry over the bizarre test question, there is some good news: The Pineapple and the Hare is being withdrawn from future tests in New York state due to the “ambiguous” nature of some of the questions. The answers of students who took the test this year won’t be counted against them.

This controversy highlights issues I always had with standardized reading tests when I was in public school. Questions like “which animal is the wisest” are completely subjective and inappropriate for a multiple-choice test. Students are left essentially to guess which answer the test writer expects to hear, rather than being given a blank space to explain their reasoning. Everyone who reads this sort of story is going to walk away with a different message – that’s the point of fiction. These sort of reading comprehension tests take out the essential elements of critical thinking and being able to explain one’s interpretation of the text which are essential in any English class or college course.

How many other test questions out there fail to assess a child’s ability to think critically about a passage? How many other poorly-written assessments are still being used because they don’t contain any elements as attention-grabbing as a talking pineapple?

At the end of the day, the puzzling case of the overly-ambitious pineapple should serve as a wake-up call. The current crop of standardized reading assessments don’t do an adequate job of measuring anything other than a child’s ability to read the mind of the test writer. Can standardized testing ever really test whether a child is absorbing and understanding a passage? Or should we find new ways to assess reading?


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Photo credit: Sudoking via Flickr

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10:41AM PDT on Aug 26, 2012

Weird. Is this an "Only in America" thingee?

8:22AM PDT on Jul 31, 2012

Thankfully as a student I had never encountered a bizarre question like that on a standardized test. A fine question for a writing test on creativity and imagination but standardized testing leaves little to the imagination.

3:44PM PDT on May 1, 2012

Allen P. You make a good point, lol! Animals clearly don't speak English as well as they used to.

3:42PM PDT on May 1, 2012

I kind of see how it could have been a subjective question if they were testing several age groups. That would be fine, unfortunatly most teachers and schools don't really encourage creative thinking anymore.

11:14AM PDT on May 1, 2012

The teachers then have to teach to the test. How wonderful is that?

10:36PM PDT on Apr 30, 2012

I found it odd that all of the animals, as well as the tropical fruit, spoke English "just as well as you and me". What kind of fantasy world were those animals living in, anyway?

7:35PM PDT on Apr 30, 2012

But if we don't teach them how to read their teachers' minds, how will we set them up for a comfortable future of reading the minds of and placating their future employers/overlords?

6:49PM PDT on Apr 30, 2012


4:33PM PDT on Apr 30, 2012

This could have different perspectives and answers from different age groups.

4:14PM PDT on Apr 30, 2012

Every test measures something. Sometimes, it's just the ability to take tests. I think it can be dangerous for an education system to rely too heavily on them. Using tests fosters the illusion of precision, for one thing, but it is only an illusion. No matter how definite the number a test throws out, it can never really measure how well a student learned something. Did forgetting set in the moment a student stepped out the door? Sometimes. Can a test measure that? No. Yet, credentialing aside, it's what a student takes away with them that is the important part of an education. Tests also favour those with a skill and talent for taking tests, or for reading the teacher. These are skills with only a limited importance in the real world.

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