Regents tackle talking pineapple issues
On Board Online • May 7, 2012
By Cathy Woodruff
The topic of examination quality jumped to the top of the Board of Regents’ agenda after a flurry of news stories about a strange fable on last month’s statewide ELA test.
At their April meeting, Regents questioned how items are being prepared and vetted for future exams.
Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch used the words “troubling episode” to describe a controversy over reading comprehension questions on “The Hare and the Pineapple,” an absurdist story in which a talking pineapple challenges a hare to a race. Students have complained there is no right answer to some of the reading comprehension questions, and plenty of adults – including Jeopardy champ Ken Jennings – have confessed to being similarly dumbfounded.
“I have actually banned the use of pineapple in my home for the foreseeable future,” Tisch quipped as she opened the board’s morning session on April 23.
In the story, animals including a moose, an owl and a crow cheer for the pineapple. They speculate that the fruit must have a clever plan for winning –- otherwise why would the pineapple issue such a ridiculous challenge? When the hare wins, the animals eat the pineapple.
The most perplexing of the six related questions asked which animal was the wisest. The official “correct” answer was the owl, who said the pineapple couldn’t have a trick up his sleeve because pineapples don’t have sleeves. Another question asked why the animals ate the pineapple (they were annoyed, according to the State Education Department).
Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. said none of the questions on the pineapple story would be counted in results due to their “ambiguous nature.” Nevertheless, he told the Regents he is confident that the overall results from this year’s testing will provide the data the state needs to assess student growth.
He added: “I think this episode points to the importance of careful judgment on the part of Pearson, our assessment vendor.”
The talking pineapple story and the questions that followed have been used more than a dozen times on Pearson-developed tests in other states, King told the Regents. Pearson included the items on the New York test as “norm-referenced questions” designed to compare responses from New Yorkers with those of students from other states, he said.
According to Education Department testing officials, this year’s exams included three types of questions: norm-referenced comparative items such as the pineapple story, items directly related to the state’s 2005 learning standards, and items being field-tested for next year’s exams.
Pearson, which holds several other educational testing contracts with the state, last year started a $32.1 million, five-year contract to overhaul New York’s ELA tests for grades 3-11 and math tests for grades 3-8. The new tests are supposed to more closely monitor learning related to the new Common Core curriculum.
Next year’s all-Common Core-based ELA exams will feature only previously-published passages and they will not be edited, Kristen Huff, a senior fellow with the Regents Research Fund, told the board.
That change is significant because the bylined author of “The Hare and the Pineapple,” Daniel Pinkwater, says he never has written a story about a talking pineapple. Pinkwater, who lives in the Hudson Valley and is the author of dozens of children’s books including I Was a Second Grade Werewolf, explained in a newspaper column that a character in one of his novels tells a nonsense story to another character about a race between a rabbit and a talking eggplant. After buying the rights to Pinkwater’s story, Pearson re-wrote it.
“On the test, the story makes even less sense,” Pinkwater wrote in the New York Daily News. The moral of the story was changed from, “Never bet on an eggplant” to “Pineapples don’t have sleeves.”
Ken Slentz, deputy education commissioner for P-12 education, said the department is following a nine-step process to collaborate with Pearson in the development of questions for next year’s tests. The process includes multiple rounds of review and field testing of new questions to determine whether the items reveal what they are supposed to reveal to about student growth and achievement.
Tisch said the briefing by staff indicates that New York is “moving in the right direction” on improving student tests. She described the pineapple flap as “a bump” on that journey and an illustration of the perils of assuming that exam questions used elsewhere are acceptable in the Empire State.
“I am a great patriot, and I love this country,” she said. “But I do not go to Pennsylvania or Kansas to have a bagel. I go to New York to have a bagel.”
“There are some things that New York just has a higher standard for,” Tisch added. “With all due respect to the people who put together these tests, the fact that they used it in other states and got away with it … I’m just saying if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere, and right now, you have given me a pineapple.”