Talking pineapple question on state exam stumps ... everyone! Students, teachers, principals -- no one has any idea what the deal is
Ohanian Suggestion: Try to tell the plot of the pineapple story to someone not intimately connected with public education. Wouldn't it make a great bar story? I just tried telling it to my husband while we were having a cup of tea. He kept interrupting: "A pineapple? Racing a hare?"
Telling him that in the author's original version an eggplant raced a rabbit didn't help matters. I was laughing so hard at his reaction that tears ran down my cheeks.
Picture This: So Pearson psychometricians walk into a bar. . . No, wait, that's a different scenario. Pearson psychometricians get this story about a rabbit racing an eggplant. . . . I just looked up the job description for a psychometrician: The job requires advanced skills in modern test theory in addition to traditional item/test analysis methods.
Okay, so there's this eggplant. . . challenging a rabbit to a race. The psychometricians correctly see a problem with putting such an item on a high stakes test.
How do they solve the problem? They change the rabbit to a hare and the eggplant to a pineapple
Well, hey, it works for Pearson.
As longtime teacher Joseph Mugivan points out, what they create is not a reading test but a psychological test which requires a parent written consent.
My husband thought the funniest part was New York Commissioner of Education John King's explanation that this item was used to compare New York students with students who answered the same questions in Arkansas, Alabama, and elsewhere.
Who's closer to the top in figuring out who's the wisest: a. the hare b. moose c. crow d. owl
Scarsdale Middle School Principal Michael McDermott had the best answer to the question of who is the wisest "Pearson for getting paid $32 million for recycling this crap."
Kudos to Ben Chapman and Rachel Monahan for the offbeat variety of people they interviewed.
I happen to think Daniel Pinkwater is funny. But I wouldn't put any of his stories on a test. Of course, I wouldn't put anybody's stories on a test, but if my life depended on choosing a story, I wouldn't choose one with weird humor from another era--those Ninjas are pretty dated, aren't they?
At the bottom, Daniel Pinkwater offers some words on the whole episode, which, although he finds the tests to be nonsense piled upon nonsense, he also finds this situation hilarious. I can see that but I'm authors who allow their work to be used to terrorize children really tick me off. I have compiled a list of popular authors who allow their work to be used on standardized tests. Take a look at Maybe Some Children's Authors Need a Ferocious Kick on Both Shins.
I say "Shame!" on all of them.
As an added bonus, don't miss The Fruitcake and the Banana--a Tale Inspired by a Pineapple by a first grade teacher.
In his blog, Living in Dialogue, Anthony Cody reminds us how deadly serious these questions are.
Anthony Cody comment: In today's data-driven world, the scores these student achieve could be used to end a teacher's career. Read more of Anthony's blog here. And comment.
Question of the Day: Why did the test writers turn Pinkwater's eggplant into a pineapple?
That said, Stephen Krashen gives us something else to think about--think about it long and hard. This pineapple silliness may be a colossal red herring, a distraction.
Whatever that pineapple is--assessment error or publisher gamesmanship--Pearson is laughing all the way to the bank.
Krashen Comment: Sometimes I wonder if these outrageously terrible questions are included on purpose, just to get us angry and distract us from larger issues, especially "Do we need national standards, and their spawn national tests?" We have no choice but to expose bad test items but even if the tests were perfect, I would be against them. The entire national standards/test movement is a waste, a bad response to the wrong problem (the problem is poverty). And the money spent on tests should be used to protect children from the effects of poverty (nutrition, health care, and access to books.)
I suspect the testing people will react to our protests by inviting us to sit down with them and help them come up with better items, thus validating the entire enterprise.
Newsflash: The NY Commissioner of Education has issued a statement (see below), saying this is all teachers' fault.
By Ben Chapman and Rachel Monahan
Students across the state are still scratching their heads over an absurd state test question about a talking pineapple.
The puzzler on the eighth-grade reading exam stumped even educators and has critics saying the tests, which are becoming more high stakes, are flawed.
"I think it's weird that they put such a silly question on a state test. What were they thinking?" said Bruce Turley, 14, an eighth-grader at Lower Manhattan Community Middle School.
"I thought it was a little strange, but I just answered it as best as I could," said his classmate Tyree Furman, 14. "You just have to give it your best answer. These are important tests."
'JEOPARDY' CHAMP ON PINEAPPLE QUESTION: IS THIS A JOKE?
In the story, a take-off on Aesop's fable about the tortoise and the hare, a talking pineapple challenges a hare to a race. The other animals wager on the immobile pineapple winning -- and ponder whether it's tricking them.
When the pineapple fails to move and the rabbit wins, the animals dine on the pineapple.
Students were asked two perplexing questions: why did the animals eat the talking fruit, and which animal was wisest?
Teachers, principals and parents contacted by The News said they weren't sure what the answers were.
"My reaction is horror that a question that's so obviously confusing should be used on a test that is going to be used to determine our kid's future and the future of our children's schools," said parent Leonie Haimson, of Class Size Matters, who first posted the question on her blog.
In response to revelations that the state exams had become predictable and easier to pass, the state last year awarded a new $32 million contract to testing company Pearson to overhaul the tests.
The new exams have higher stakes for principals and teachers statewide, whose evaluations will be based in part on student scores beginning as soon as this year.
Scarsdale Middle School Principal Michael McDermott said the question has been used before and "confused students in six or seven different states."
And he had a quick answer to the question of who is the wisest: "Pearson for getting paid $32 million for recycling this crap."
The city confirmed the questions were on the exam, but declined to discuss any specifics, and Chancellor Dennis Walcott directed questions to the state.
State officials wouldn't divulge the answer and said they couldn't speculate on whether the questions will be scored or scratched because of the controversy. They also noted that under new state rules, the questions and answers won't be released.
But the question prompted Ken Jennings -- all-time leading money winner on "Jeopardy!"--to ask the question, "Is this a joke?"
"The story makes no sense whatsoever. The narrative has no internal logic, the "moral" in unclear, and the plot details seem so oddly chosen that the story seems to have been written during a peyote trip," said Jennings, whose 74 consecutive wins on "Jeopardy!" earned him more than $3.1 million.
E.D. Hirsch, chairman of the Core Knowledge Foundation and professor emeritus of education and humanities at the University of Virginia, said the question is "post-modern unanswerable."
"The joke is on the pineapple, because the New York Daily News is going to eat it up," Hirsh said.
Pearson spokesman Jason Smith said the state Education Department prohibited the company from speaking to the press on "matters like this."
... The Pineapple and the Hare ...
In the olden times, animals could speak English, just like you and me. There was a lovely enchanted forest that flourished with a bunch of these magical animals. One day, a hare was relaxing by a tree. All of a sudden, he noticed a pineapple sitting near him.
The hare, being magical and all, told the pineapple, "Um, hi."
The pineapple could speak English too.
"I challenge you to a race! Whoever makes it across the forest and back first wins a ninja! And a lifetime's supply of toothpaste!" The hare looked at the pineapple strangely, but agreed to the race.
The next day, the competition was coming into play. All the animals in the forest (but not the pineapples, for pineapples are immobile) arranged a finish/start line in between two trees. The coyote placed the pineapple in front of the starting line, and the hare was on his way.
Everyone on the sidelines was bustling about and chatting about the obvious prediction that the hare was going to claim the victory (and the ninja and the toothpaste). Suddenly, the crow had a revolutionary realization.
"AAAAIEEH! Friends! I have an idea to share! The pineapple has not challenged our good companion, the hare, to just a simple race! Surely the pineapple must know that he CANNOT MOVE! He obviously has a trick up his sleeve!" exclaimed the crow.
The moose spoke up.
"Pineapples don't have sleeves."
"You fool! You know what I mean! I think that the pineapple knows we're cheering for the hare, so he is planning to pull a trick on us, so we look foolish when he wins! Let's sink the pineapple's intentions, and let's cheer for the stupid fruit!" the crow passionately proclaimed. The other animals cheered, and started chanting, "FOIL THE PLAN! FOIL THE PLAN! FOIL THE PLAN!"
A few minutes later, the hare arrived. He got into place next to the pineapple, who sat there contently. The monkey blew the tree-bark whistle, and the race began! The hare took off, sprinting through the forest, and the pineapple ...
It sat there.
The animals glanced at each other blankly, and then started to realize how dumb they were. The pineapple did not have a trick up its sleeve. It wanted an honest race -- but it knew it couldn't walk (let alone run)!
About a few hours later, the hare came into sight again. It flew right across the finish line, still as fast as it was when it first took off. The hare had won, but the pineapple still sat at his starting point, and had not even budged.
The animals ate the pineapple.
Here are two of the questions:
1. Why did the animals eat the pineapple?
a. they were annoyed
b. they were amused
c. they were hungry
d. they wanted to
2. Who was the wisest?
a. the hare
Daniel Pinkwater on Pineapple Exam: 'Nonsense on Top of Nonsense'
By Lisa Fleisher
Eighth-graders who thought a passage about a pineapple and a hare on New York state tests this week made no sense, take heart: The author thinks it's absurd too.
"It's hilarious on the face of it that anybody creating a test would use a passage of mine, because I'm an advocate of nonsense," Daniel Pinkwater, the renowned children's author and accidental exam writer, said in an interview. "I believe that things mean things, but they don't have assigned meanings."
Pinkwater, who wrote the original story on which the test question was based, has been deluged with comments from puzzled students -- and not for the first time. The passage seems to have been recycled from English tests in other states, bringing him new batches of befuddled students each time it's used.
The original story, which Pinkwater calls a "fractured fable," was about a race between a rabbit and an eggplant. By the time it got onto standardized tests, however, it had doubled in length and become a race between a hare and a talking pineapple, with various other animals involved. In the end, the animals eat the pineapple.
The tests can be used to determine whether a student is promoted to the next grade. Once new teacher evaluations are put in place, the tests will also affect teachers' careers.
Pearson PLC, which created the test as part of a five-year, $32 million state contract, referred questions to the New York State Education Department. The department hasn't returned requests for comment since Wednesday.
Pinkwater, 70 years old, took a moment to speak with Metropolis while having his tea, after he walked the bluffs along the Hudson River with his dogs in Hyde Park, N.Y.
Metropolis: The pineapple thing. . .
So you're calling because-- Oh the pineapple thing! I thought you were calling because I'm this great author.
That's why I originally wanted to call, and then this came up. Once again you're dealing with this sort of absurd passage on a state test.
There was never all this attention before. Occasionally there would be some mention, every couple of years, that that quote has been appearing on those stupid tests -- and you can quote me, stupid tests. There's big to-do about it now since it ran in New York this past week. I've gotten a ton of emails from kids. One kid phoned me up. They had many comments ranging from, "What are you, crazy?" to "That was the funniest thing I ever saw on a test" to "These tests are stupid, aren't they, Mr. Pinkwater."
How did the passage become part of the test?
You're an author, and one of the side benefits -- and it's not a very big one --is that people will pay to use excerpts. You know they're useless, but on the other hand, I'm not John Grisham, I could use the extra couple of bucks. They used to ask for it gratis. You'd ask, "Are you going to pay me anything?" And they'd go, "Oh, well, we're educational."
And of course they're selling this stuff for millions to state departments of education. An agent I had years ago said just because it's nonprofit and educational, don't let them not pay you, because they're making money.
Can you give me an idea of how much you get paid?
They start out with: "A lot of authors are contributing these things because it's for the betterment of our children." Then they go to: "The most we'll pay is $100." I think I have cranked them up as high as $2,000 or $3,000 on occasion, but other times I can just get a couple of hundred bucks.
I don't believe in dirty money, but I know that the excerpts are not being put to particularly good use. In this case, they totally rewrote it. I don't think they would have really had a copyright problem on their hands if they hadn't paid me. They basically turned it into test-ese. Or maybe I misjudged them. Maybe somebody working on the test was slowly going crazy, and wanted to put in something amusing for him or herself, and also for the kids.
Can you tell me a little bit about the passage in context of the original novel?
The novel is called "Borgel." It's in a collection called "4 Fantastic Novels."
Quite the modest title.
Well, yeah, I didn't want to go over the top.
It's a nuclear little family, a mother, father and three kids. An old man shows up at the door and says, "Hello, I'm your relative, I'm 111 years old."
"You're our relative how?"
He said, "I'm not quite clear about that. I know we're related. I'm moving in." And he brings in all his valises and moves into the back room. He becomes great friends with his great-great-great nephew.
In this particular passage, they're on a bus, and Borgel, the old man, is telling him one of these fractured fables after another. And much better things happen. They go on a time-space adventure, and they meet God, who happens to be an orange popsicle. I think this may the only work of fiction in which it's revealed that God can take the form of an orange popsicle, which I believe he can.
What is the moral of the eggplant story?
In the book, the moral is never bet on an eggplant. The old man is gradually giving the nephew reason to believe that he is senile or crazy by the things he says or does, so that the nephew will be alarmed but not surprised when the old man appears to be stealing a car. They take off on a road trip in it. But as far as I am able to ascertain from my own work, there isn't necessarily a specifically assigned meaning in anything.
That really is why it's hilarious on the face of it that anybody creating a test would use a passage of mine, because I'm an advocate of nonsense' I believe that things mean things but they don't have assigned meanings.
I'm on this earth to put up a feeble fight against the horrible tendency people have to think that there's a formula. "If I do the following things, I'll get elected president." No you won't. "If I do the following things, my work of art will be good." Not necessarily. "If I follow this recipe, the dish will come out very delicious." Maybe.
Trust me, there is no formula for most things that are not math.
When kids are confronted with questions about the modified version of your passage, there seems to be no particular answer. Yet all answers can be correct. Does that actually fit your message?
That's exactly right --and I must interject that I admire the job they did, because it makes even less sense than mine. If the test company, when you get around to them, can gather their wits together sufficiently to make a case for, "We don't count that against the kid's grade, we put that there as a sort of brain teaser to show them that not everything is quantifiable, and to let them have a little fun," then I'll retract all my aspersions about how they're money-grubbing b____ and overcharge for this stuff and sell it over and over again and underpay the poor authors they buy it off of.
They're referring all questions to the New York State Education Department, which also hasn't responded to my questions.
It is pretty funny that anybody -- anybody -- is taking any of this seriously
You say it's funny people are taking it seriously, but these tests nowadays determine whether kids move on to the next grade, and they also will determine, in part, whether teachers keep their jobs.
Could you answer the test questions?
Of course not. This is an exercise in Zen. This is like when the Zen master says, "Can you hear the sound of one-hand clapping?" And if you don't answer fast enough, he whacks you with a stick. And from this you're supposed to get enlightened. I'd like to think that the company that made the test had something like that in mind but I think basically they had nothing in mind.
Or somebody liked the passage because it was amusing, so they rewrote it to make it a little less amusing -- in my professional opinion -- and they put in the test for no reason at all. It's nonsense on top of nonsense on top of nonsense. And on top of that nonsense is me talking to The Wall Street Journal about it.
The kids who wrote to me and said they laughed should get a higher mark than the kids who wrote to me and said, "I was confused and now I'm upset." I would have no idea how to answer those questions, but I probably would have answered them off the scale. I would have written something in the margin and called to the principal's office for it.
Regardless, I'll ask you the questions. Why did the animals eat the pineapple: A) they were annoyed B) they were amused C) they were hungry D) they wanted to.
They feared socialism. Or they had made an appointment to see their aunt in Minnesota. The next answer is: "Are you a fool? Animals can't talk."
The next question we know of was: Who was the wisest? A) the hare B) the moose C) the crow D) the owl.
There are only two answers for who were the wisest: the author or the publisher who made the test.
The Fruitcake and the Big Banana -- a tale inspired by a pineapple
(A tale inspired by the Pineapple and the Hare)
by rratto, an elementary teacher just trying to do the right thing
In recent times, politicians all across the country, thought they knew a way to get everyone to speak English just like them. One day a fruitcake, to appease those politicians, challenged all teachers in the country to a race to the top.
(I forgot to mention, fruitcakes have been dictating education policy lately.)
I should mention, that teachers all across the country have graduate degrees and are always perfecting their craft by utilizing professional development. So they seemed surprised by the challenge.
"Mr. Fruitcake, why are you challenging us teachers to a race to the top?" the teachers asked. "Are you kidding, after the NCLB fiasco your predecessor thrust upon us?"
"Sure," said the fruitcake. "The big banana approved my plan to challenge you all." He said, "Yes you can."
"You aren't even in a classroom, you don't understand all the challenges!" the teachers said. "You're a Fruitcake!"
All the educators across the country thought it was strange that the Fruitcake would want to have a race to the top. You see teachers all over the country supported the big banana and his ideas, except this one.
"The fruitcake must have some sort of hidden agenda," the skeptical professor said.
"Fruitcakes are full of mysterious green things that have hidden meanings," the Sly Fox broadcasted.
"Well you know, if a fruitcake wants teachers to race to the top, it must mean there is a really good reason." the Peacock with the fancy right wing said. "After all, we've heard that they haven't been to the top for a very long time. The fruitcake must know what he's doing."
Everyone all across the country, well not quite everyone, started to believe that the fruitcake knew what he was doing. Even the big banana thought the race to the top was achievable. So all many of those with right and left wings started to proclaim that they believed in the fruitcake's grand plan.
When the race began, the teachers resigned to their fate, attended meetings in anticipation of readying their small groups, to sprint to the top. They coached, drilled and practiced with their teams every available minute. Some teams even gave up some luxuries such as meaningful discussions, exploring their imaginations, and yes dreaming. All in an effort to race to the top.
As the race to the top became an anticipated spectacle all across the country, all those standing by in the country, realized that there was going to be a cost to race to the top. Suddenly, the mood of those standing by began to change, and the sly Fox broadcasted, that the teachers are really scapegoats. The Sly Fox began to lead many of those standing by in the country to chant, that the teachers were the blame for the need to race to the top.
Now the Big Banana saw what was happening in the country, So he took to the air and proclaimed that teachers should be allowed to have meaningful discussions, explore the imaginations, and yes let their teams dream. Just as the teachers began to jump for joy, they realized the Big Banana didn't call the race to the top off. The Fruitcake's cohorts all across the country were still constructing challenges, obstacles and hazards for the race. So the teachers had no choice but to lead their teams to the starting line.
There they were, the Sly Fox, belittling the teachers, the Fruitcake promising rewards at the top and punishment for those who don't make it, the bystanders looking confused and some not seeing evil, hearing no evil, and saying no evil, standing by. The skeptical professor went from one end of the line to the other, trying to convince the masses that the race to the top is a trick, because there was no top.
Then the race began.
The teachers took off, as fast as they could. Working earnestly they approached their first obstacle. Strangely enough it was a pineapple.
And that's where we leave our little story. Only time will tell if the teachers can overcome the pineapple. Will the Fruitcake be eaten by the bystanders? Will the Big Banana remain the Big Banana? Will the Sly Fox continue to confuse those who listen? Will the skeptical professor convince the bystanders to help the teachers and end the race?
One thing I do know, teachers all across the country overcome pineapples, fruitcakes, and those who try to turn them into scapegoats every day. Big bananas always start off green and either turn deliciously ripe or just plain rotten. Teachers want the big banana to ripen beautifully but if it turns rotten, no matter how much they can, even if they want to, they won't, if it turns rotten.
Moral: Be careful where you race to
b>Newsflash--from the New York State Commissioner of Education
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE APRIL 20, 2012
For More Information Contact:
Tom Dunn, Jonathan Burman or Jane Briggs
STATEMENT FROM EDUCATION COMMISSIONER JOHN B. KING ON THE HARE AND THE PINEAPPLE
First of all, the "passage" printed in the media is not complete. Although the questions make more sense in the context of the full passage, due to the ambiguous nature of the test questions the Department has decided it will not be counted against students in their scores.
It is important to note that this test section does not incorporate the Common Core and other improvements to test quality currently underway. This year's tests incorporate a small number of Common Core field test questions. Next year's test will be fully aligned with the Common Core. [emphasis added]
This particular passage, like all test questions, was reviewed by a committee comprised of teachers from across the state, but it was not crafted for New York State. It's a passage that has been used in other states and was included by Pearson Inc., the test vendor, to provide a comparison between New York students and students from other states.1 The passage and related questions are not reflective of the precision of the entire exam.
The accuracy and efficacy of our state assessments are crucial to our reform efforts and measuring student academic growth. We will, as always, review and analyze all questions on every assessment we administer.
The actual Hare and Pineapple passage and related questions can be found here.
1 It has been used in the Stanford Achievement Test (SAT 10).
Ohanian footnote: As New York State Education Commissioner, Dr. John B. King, Jr. oversees more than 7,000 public and independent elementary and secondary schools (serving 3.1 million students), and hundreds of other educational institutions across New York State including higher education, libraries, and museums. He co-founded Roxbury Prep charter school and led Uncommon Schools, a network of charters based in New York. The knowledge of public school he brought to this leadership included attending them as a child.
John King's biography--from 12-year-old orphan--to BA from Harvard, a law degree from Yale, and an Ed.D from Columbia--sounds like a natural for an Oprah special. I mean that with admiration--high saccharine content, yes--but high admiration.
I just wonder why someone with this kind of talent couldn't find anyone to write a better press release. For starters, it's not a good idea to whine--and blame everybody else--in a press release.
there was a blistering phonecall to Pearson;
some heads will role in the hierarchy of the New York State Department of Education;
the public will see these tests for the corrupt vehicles they are and start asking more important questions than Where's the Pineapple?
the public will start to see that the whole standards and testing enterprise is corrupt and, more important, is unnecessary.
When Pineapple Races Hare, Students Lose, Critics of Standardized Tests Say
A reading passage included this week in one of New York's standardized English tests has become the talk of the eighth grade, with students walking around saying, "Pineapples don't have sleeves," as if it were the code for admission to a secret society.
The passage is a parody of the tortoise and the hare story, the Aesop's fable that almost every child learns in elementary school. Only instead of a tortoise, the hare races a talking pineapple, and the moral of the story -- more on that later -- is the part about the sleeves.
While taking the test, baffled children raised their hands to say things like, "This story doesnÃ¢€™t make sense."
Antitesting activists have taken up the cudgel, saying that the passage and the multiple-choice questions associated with it perfectly illustrate the absurdity of standardized testing. And by Friday afternoon, the state education commissioner had decided that the questions would not count in studentsÃ¢€™ official scores.
Daniel Pinkwater, a popular children's book author who wrote the original version of the passage, which was doctored for the test, said that the test-makers had turned a nonsensical story into a nonsensical question for what he believed was a nonsensical test, but acknowledged that he was tickled to death by the children's reaction.
"One kid called me, and there were quite a few e-mails," Mr. Pinkwater said.
"Some kids took me to task; the phrase sellout appeared on my screen," he said, adding that he had been paid for the right to his excerpt and never looked back to see what had been done with it. "Others were gentler about it."
While the furor over the test passage seems to have achieved phenomenal proportions in New York --one boy has already posted a picture on his Facebook page of a T-shirt with the motto "Pineapples DonÃ¢€™t Have Sleeves" --it has caused similar ripples across the country.
It turns out the same passage and questions, perhaps with variations, have been used at least as far back as 2007 in states like Illinois, Arkansas, Delaware and Alabama, and every time, elicited roughly the same spectrum of incredulity, bafflement, hilarity and outrage.
"I'm still confused about the WHOLE thing," a student from Alabama posted on a blog in March 2010.
"Our whole school was talking about that story all day long," posted Adam from Arkansas, a month later.
"Given all the negative feedback they got in other states, they should have pulled this story," Diane Ravitch, an education historian and critic of the growth of standardized testing, said Friday.
"When the kids ridicule it when they first read it, you know that something's wrong here. That's the scary part."
The test publisher, Pearson, did not respond to requests for comment about the most recent confusion caused by the passage, which was reported Friday by The Daily News.
In a statement Friday afternoon, John B. King Jr., the state education commissioner, said that "due to the ambiguous nature of the test questions the department has decided it will not be counted against students in their scores."
Mr. King also said that a committee of teachers had reviewed all testing material, including the passage in question, and that it had been reused by Pearson as a way to compare New York students to counterparts in other states. Mr. King also said that in the context of the full passage the questions "make more sense."
But more than a dozen eighth graders interviewed Friday unanimously disputed Mr. King's assessment, saying that two of the six questions were barely rational. (All six are being thrown out.)
The crux of the passage is that the pineapple challenges the hare to a race, and the other animals are convinced the pineapple must have a trick up its sleeve and will win. When the pineapple stands still, the animals eat it. The moral of the story: "Pineapples don't have sleeves."
One of the disputed questions asked, essentially, which was the wisest animal. Some students said that none of the animals seemed very bright, but that a likely answer was the owl, because it was the one that uttered the moral.
Others worried that the owl was a distraction, because owls are supposed to be wise, so it would be the wrong answer.
The other tough question was why the animals ate the pineapple. Students were torn between two of the four choices: they were annoyed or they were hungry; either one seemed to work.
"It was kind of weird," Octavio Solis, 13, an eighth grader at Intermediate School 136 in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, said Friday morning, bursting out laughing at the memory of the passage. "I didn't really understand it, why they ate the pineapple."
A sidewalk sampling of students in the Delta program, a gifted program at Middle School 54 on the Upper West Side, reached a consensus that the owl was the wisest. (Correct.) Most thought the animals ate the pineapple because they were annoyed that it had tricked them (Also correct.), and said that there was no evidence that the animals were hungry.
(By that point the pineapple had "lost all human traits," said Geoffrey Cowling, 13, so eating it did not seem so bad.)
But Kate Scheuer, another Delta student, said the jokiness of the story made her nervous. "I thought I was getting it wrong," she said. "I was second-guessing myself because it's so ridiculous."
Deborah Meier, founder of the progressive Central Park East schools in New York City, who has lectured and written widely about testing, said the pineapple passage was "an outrageous example of what's true of most of the items on any test, it's just blown up larger."
In the world of testing, she said, it does not really matter whether an answer is right or wrong; the "right" answer is the one that field testing has shown to be the consensus answer of the "smart" kids. "It's a psychometric concept," she said.
Even very intelligent children, she said, can sometimes overthink an answer and get it wrong.
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?"
Mr. Pinkwater's original twist on the fable is in his novel, "Borgel," part of his book, "4 Fantastic Novels," published in paperback 12 years ago. It is told by a 111-year-old man to a boy who might or might not be his relative, while they are riding a bus. "He tells them these fables from the old country, and this is one of them," Mr. Pinkwater said. "Sometimes everybody on the bus would get involved."
In the original version a rabbit races an eggplant, and children speculated Friday that the eggplant had been changed to a pineapple because some kids might not know what an eggplant was. Why the rabbit was changed to a hare was harder to explain. There is no mention of sleeves.
Mr. Pinkwater (whose wife, Jill, is a former college remedial reading teacher) said he considered himself a nonsense writer, and the test-makers had taken his story far too seriously. "Well give me a break," he said. "It's a nonsense story and there isn't an option for a nonsense answer."
Ann Farmer and Daniel Krieger contributed reporting.
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