Ack. I generally try to ignore trending news stories (more sanity for me!) but I got sucked in by this one. Short version: a question on an 8th grade reading comprehension test featured a silly children’s story accompanied by some dumb questions, the kids who took the test went “lol wut?”, and then the media had a field day bashing those responsible for the test.
Here’s the actual story / questions: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2012/04/20/nyregion/21pineapple-document.html
How many things are wrong with this picture?
Problem the first. The original version of the story that made it onto the interwebs was actually a loose (and creative) recap by one of the 8th graders: http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2012/04/20/151044647/the-pineapple-and-the-hare-can-you-answer-two-bizarre-state-exam-questions. Apparently none of the reporters who covered it took the time to ascertain the validity of the transcription. Apparently even dialogue such as “Whoever makes it across the forest and back first wins a ninja! And a lifetime’s supply of toothpaste!” did not set off any editorial alarm bells. Thank you NPR.
Problem the second. It’s actually a great story! I admit I’m a little biased: the author of the story, Daniel Manus Pinkwater, was one of my favorite authors when I was a kid. The reason the story comes off as silly is because it comes from a genre that tends to cause problems for reporters and department of education employees alike. Let’s say it together: p-a-r-o-d-y. Specifically, the story subverts Aesop-style fables (such as “The Tortoise and the Hare”) by showing a cast of characters follow the typical genre logic down a silly path and ending up at odds with common sense.
While the story is good, the questions are not. Their author (some nameless employee in the bowels of some outsourced educational testing firm?) seems to have missed that this is not meant to be a work of psychological realism, and that therefore inquiries into the characters’ states of mind (were the animals annoyed or were they hungry?) are basically meaningless, as are guesses about counterfactual outcomes. The correct answer to the “which is the wisest animal” question is, in my opinion, “none of the above,” or maybe the rabbit, because he was all like “okay whatever let’s just race dude.”
So now the blogomediasphere is waxing outraged that our poor dear children are being subjected to, my gosh my god, silly and ambiguous questions, on this, the all important standardized test, that will determine their fates and the fates of their teachers forevermore!!!!
Okay. So clearly this is an incidence of incompetence on someone’s part. It’s a bad question. It might even be symptomatic of a broader swath of incompetence, although given the initial furor was based on some random 8th grader’s retelling of it, I’m inclined not to get too worked up on this evidence alone; we are clearly not dealing with a competent journalistic expose.
My feeling is that whether or not the question is competent is besides the point. The real thing to be sad about is that we have kids conditioned to look for the “right answer” and who freak out if they get tossed something ambiguous. Not the kids’ fault: they’re the ones being told that if they can’t pick from a multiple choice list correctly that they are “bad students” and won’t be able to get into college. The solution to this is not less ambiguous, more serious questions!! If anything, I think I’m glad this incident happened, because a bunch of kids learned the lesson that the adults with their “serious we are the education system” faces on aren’t always playing with a full deck; better they learn that in 8th grade then after they graduate from college!
You could teach a great lesson to a class of 8th graders for an hour with this story. You’d start by asking, “What’s the moral of this story?” and gradually elicit that what the story says is the moral (“Pineapples don’t have sleeves”) isn’t actually the moral, or at least, it’s a very coy statement of the actual moral. From there you could get into a discussion of what a fable is, what a parody is, what it means to be facetious, whether or not the author is just being silly or if there’s an actual point, common sense, etc. etc. Additionally, if you were teaching it to a class of kids who suffered through the test, you could have fun picking apart the questions that were asked about it, and maybe get into a bit of pedagogical theory about standardized tests, government bureaucracy, etc. Actually, that sounds like a not-too-bad college lesson plan!