Orwell Award Announcement SusanOhanian.Org Home

Brownie the Cow Has Some Parents Alleging an Unfair Test

CTB/McGraw-Hill strikes again.
Although I applaud the actions of the protesting parents who have set up a "Brownie the Cow" website, but I caution them not to think the multiple choice questions are any better. As I've said often, Children and Reading Tests by Clifford Hill and Eric Larsen will convince you how misleading those reading passages and multiple choice questions are. The book is particularly attentive to the role of culture in shaping children's understanding of what they read. It will knock your socks off.

Here's the Brownie question, with full explanation from parents and the State.

The website also posts some samples (pdf file) from the January 2006 New York test.

AND parents are advised to take action:

See Your Child's Test

Parents may see a copy of their child's state test "answer document" by using this form: http://www.ParentRequestfor AnswerDocumentForm.pdf

Your child's principal can certify the form and send it to the NYC Department of Education - Assessment and Accountability - Testing Division.

Or you can have it notarized and send it directly. The address is on the form.

Please notify info@BrownieTheCow.org if you have difficulty with this process.

By David M. Herszenhorn

In the annals of history of the New York City school system, it may well be known as the Brownie the Cow Affair, or, perhaps Browniegate — a testing controversy of barnyard proportions that is shaking the halls of the city’s Education Department in Lower Manhattan and has reverberated in the corridors of the State Education Department in Albany.

Warning that the middle school prospects of thousands of New York City school children are in jeopardy, the parents of a fifth grader in Brooklyn are leading a charge to get Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein to set aside the results of the state’s fourth-grade English exam. The scores are critical in admissions decisions for many magnet schools.

Their complaint is a listening comprehension and writing question about Brownie the Cow, a character in a fable called “Why the Rooster Crows at Dawn,” which was read aloud to students during administration of the test last January. The parents say the question was so absurdly complex, requiring 9-year-old test-takers to psychoanalyze a confused farm animal, that even adults could not write an effective response.

In the fable, a rooster, proclaiming himself king of the farm, struts into the cows’ pasture and Brownie, “the kindest of all cows,” worries that he will get stepped on.

After the rooster ignores Brownie’s concern, the cows play a joke. “As the king, it is your job to know everything that happens on the farm,” Brownie says. “That means you are the first to wake up. Then you must be the last to sleep.” The story ends with the cows laughing as the rooster crows each morning.

The test asked children to write a short essay answering: “How does Brownie the cow act at the beginning of the story? How does her behavior change by the end of the story? What causes this change?”

In a letter to the chancellor, the parents said the question was typical of the exam, which they called confusing, and they challenged Mr. Klein to take the test.

“Have someone read you the passage, twice, and then try your best to answer the question about how and why Brownie the Cow changes in the story,” wrote the parents, Eve Gartner and Joe Morris, whose son Samuel attends Public School 372 in Park Slope. To press their case, they created a Web site,

The state says the test was not intended for admissions purposes. And parents said their outcry over Brownie the cow highlighted a broader concern that the city is misusing standardized exams.

Ms. Gartner, a lawyer for Planned Parenthood, and Mr. Morris, a community organizer in New Jersey, said the question left adults perplexed. “We have asked several friends to take the ‘Brownie the Cow Challenge’ ” they wrote. “So far, none of our adult friends seem ready to advance to the fifth grade.”

David Cantor, a spokesman for Mr. Klein, referred questions to the state. Tom Dunn, a spokesman for the State Education Department, said that officials had carefully field-tested the question and that most fourth graders answered correctly. He said it was worth 1.8 out of 43 points on the test, not enough to knock a student from the highest level on the test, Level 4, which some middle schools require for entry.

“If you lost the entire Brownie points,” Mr. Dunn said, “this would not put a student in Level 3.” He added: “The question was not confusing to children.” The correct answer was to describe how the cow was initially kind but by the end plays a mean joke.

Mr. Morris said he, too, had surveyed his son’s peers. “We field-tested on fourth graders, too,” he said, “and got universal bewilderment.”

— David M. Herszenhorn
New York Times




This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of education issues vital to a democracy. We believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information click here. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.