By Pamela Grundy
If you spent this weekend chuckling or fuming about a nonsensical standardized test question involving a hare and a talking pineapple, you have PAA co-founder Leonie Haimson to thank. Leonie wrote the blog that started the media storm, highlighted the absurdity of high-stakes standardized tests and got the question pulled from the exam.
Leonie, who’s worked on educational issues for years, was the right person in the right place in the right time.
She’d been looking for a way to spotlight problems with standardized test questions when she got an intriguing comment on a blog about this year’s New York state exams, purchased from testing giant Pearson to the tune of $32 million.
“Apparently the New York State 8th Graders thought the story about “The Hare and the Pineapple” was so ridiculous that they have started a Facebook page about it,” the anonymous contributor wrote. A few Google searches later Leonie discovered that kids from all across the country had been complaining about the question since 2006.
Then her own eighth grader came home from school. Like most eighth graders, he’s not normally a font of information. “He never talks to me,” she observed. But when she asked him about “The Hare and the Pineapple,” he had plenty to say. The story made no sense, he told her. He and his best friend even got in a fight about the answer to one of the questions.
(At this point, dear readers, I advise you to go read the story and the questions for yourselves. As you will see, the two most problematic questions are 7 – “Why did the animals eat the pineapple?” – and 8 – “Which animal spoke the wisest words?” In my mind the answer to 8 is a tossup between the hare’s “You’re not even an animal! You’re a tropical fruit!” and the owl’s “Pineapples don’t have sleeves.” But I digress.)
The comment showed up the evening of Wednesday, April 18. By Thursday, Leonie had written up her findings and posted them to the NYC Public School Parents blog while on a train to D.C. Soon afterwards, she started getting phone calls. By Friday, the story was all over the country and the New York State Educational Commissioner had pulled the question.
“I’ve broken some stories that I consider pretty important, had some pretty big headlines, but never anything like this,” Leonie said.
It’s easy to laugh at the absurdity of it all. But it’s dead serious. Now that stakes on standardized tests have grown so high, the fate of students, educators and schools rests on the answers to questions like these.
And as stakes have risen, states and private companies have become more secretive about the exams. Teachers are forbidden to breathe a word about exam questions. Parents aren’t allowed to see most of them. Many of the “value-added” calculations slated to determine the ratings and tenure of teachers are calculated with privately written “proprietary” software. A teacher with questions about the validity of her career-ending value-added score doesn’t even have the right to know how the score was calculated.
Pineapplegate, as the scandal is now called, is a crystal clear example of why the testing industry can’t be trusted to police itself. As Leonie learned, complaints about “The Hare and the Pineapple” began in 2006, and have repeatedly surfaced since then, as Pearson recycled the passage across the country, year after year. Eventually, it reached the exalted status of being “nationally normed” – which means that it allowed states to precisely measure how their students stacked up nationwide when it came to answering questions that made no sense.
Leonie wasn’t surprised to find a bad question. She’s been reviewing old tests for years, and “there are always stupid and ambiguous questions.” But she was especially angry that this one had circulated for so long, despite all the complaints.
“Testing companies have been abusing and harassing kids with “The Hare and the Pineapple” for seven years, and until now, nobody bothered to tell them to stop,” she noted.
The word “abuse” makes sense in this context, because running into questions they can’t answer, no matter how they try, throws a lot of students out of whack. “If you read these comments from these students, it wrecks their confidence for the rest of the test,” Leonie explained. When the resulting low-par performances lead to serious consequences for students, teachers and schools, sloppy questions go beyond just being stupid. They become criminal.
Clearly, we need to demand more accountability from the testing companies, perhaps by requiring the release of all tests to the public, along with independent oversight boards made up of parents and educators. But will our elected officials demand this? Or will the testing companies continue to have free reign over our kids, while reaping huge profits and keeping their defective products secret?