"Pineapples Don't Have Sleeves": More Standardized Testing Follies

"Pineapples Don't Have Sleeves": More Standardized Testing Follies

A misguided set of standardized test questions not only reveals the follies of standardized testing, but also reveals some clues about what may really be worth assessing.

How did the phrase "Pineapples don't have sleeves" become code words for the follies of standardized testing? This New York Times article explains how -- a reading passage from a standardized test which sounds like a bad joke: a pineapple challenges a hare to a race, which causes other animals to believe that the pineapple has a trick up its sleeve to win the race. When the pineapple stands still, the animals eat it -- because, as we know, “Pineapples don’t have sleeves.” Get it?

Well, apparently a lot of young test takers didn't get it, because the questions caused a lot of confusion -- which is actually a good thing. The question set was adapted from a book by Daniel Pinkwater who, as the NYT article notes, had a lot more sense about it; according to the article, his reaction was "that the test-makers had turned a nonsensical story into a nonsensical question for what he believed was a nonsensical test."

But Pinkwater's other reaction is even more important: he also "acknowledged that he was tickled to death by the children’s reaction" even though some of them "took me to task" for the question. Pinkwater sees the true value of this situation: children exercising their critical thinking skills, expressing their thoughts and feelings, and doing many of those other things that are more important in life than regurgitating answers to questions which are little more than a "psychometric concept", as Deborah Meier notes in the article. She suggests that "a more legitimate question for a nonsense fable, she said, would have been something like, 'Is this a spoof? Is it intended to make sense?'"

I suggest taking it even further: imagine a test composed of questions like these which, instead of getting students to identify the "right" answers, asked them to critique the passage -- analyze it, reflect on it, suggest ways of making it make sense, express their opinions, make up better questions. As the article shows, that's what the kids are doing anyway; instead of ignoring this or acting as if their thoughts and opinions are not important (except, of course, in this rarest of exceptions that proves the current rule: being interviewed for a NYT article and being asked what they think), why not make this the norm instead? I know, it's more work, it's harder to assess, it makes it difficult to sort. Someday, though, that is what such questions will be used for, and people will look back and wonder how anyone could possibly think that our current batch of standardized tests yielded anything of much value...