Gas station without pumps

2012 April 22

New Yorkers opposed to nonsense stories

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 05:54
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Anemona Hartocollis reports in the NY Times about a Daniel Pinkwater story used in New York’s standardized English tests: Standardized Testing Is Blamed for Question About a Sleeveless Pineapple.

The story itself is a good nonsense story, and only one of the questions should be tricky for 8th graders (asking for the motivation of the characters in the story).  If you want to see whether students can read and understand text, using a nonsense story is an excellent strategy, since students can’t rely on prior knowledge to answer the questions.  (That is unlike a reading test my son took in kindergarten, which relied on prior knowledge of who Amelia Earhart was.)

True to form, New Yorkers were up in arms about the questions “And by Friday afternoon, the state education commissioner had decided that the questions would not count in students’ official scores.”

Antitesting advocates have decided to make this story into a symbol for their mission of eliminating testing.  Because the story is a good one, with a memorable punch line (“Pineapples don’t have sleeves”), I’m sure the antitesting advocates will succeed in getting their message out.  Unfortunately, I think that they are attacking the wrong target, and their efforts are likely to make tests worse, not better.

If any reading that is amusing and memorable is going to be attacked by activists, and the education commissioner is going to throw out any questions about such reading, then the tests are going to be populated with the driest, most boring passages the test makers can find.  This is not the direction I want testing to go.

I suspect that this story and set of questions, which got students discussing the story after the test, may have been the most effective literature prompt that the students have gotten all year.

Quite frankly, I think that education commissioner, John B. King Jr, has acted here as a spineless politician, throwing out all the questions regardless of whether they are measuring what the test is supposed to be measuring.  Of course, it gets his name before the voters in a way that makes him look like he is defending the integrity of the tests, when what he is actually doing is pandering to the loudest and most ignorant activists. This sort of brainless “leadership” is what has made our government so dysfunctional in the past few decades.

My take on this flap is that the story and questions did a very good job of determining what the test writers were asked to determine—whether students could read and interpret literature that they had not previously seen.

Deborah Meier, a founder of a “progressive” school, appears very opposed to close reading of the text, believing that only very vague questions (like “Is this a spoof? Is it intended to make sense?”) are reasonable.  That is an appropriate question for a 4th grade test, perhaps, but I expect more of 8th graders than that sort of superficial question that could be answered without reading most of the story.

I wonder whether the anti-testing advocates actually read the story, or just decided that “nonsense” on tests is bad.  Certainly Ms. Meier’s comment that the story is “an outrageous example of what’s true of most of the items on any test, it’s just blown up larger” does not suggest that she understood what the testing is supposed to be measuring.  She just wanted to be outraged, and people who want to be outraged find any excuse for it.


  1. I think you hit it right on the head with the last sentence of your post. I find myself turned off by the tone of so many anti-testing advocates’ rantings and ravings, especially since so many of them seem to use nothing but platitudes and generalizations that get in the way of what might be a rational, cohesive argument. It’s enough to make me want to defend standardized tests, which is something I, quite frankly, don’t really want to do because I don’t really like standardized testing.

    If anything, I think they hurt their cause more than they help because they tend to go after little fish and the noise they make when going after little fish (teachers, principals, etc.) probably has the big fish laughing as they prep the next test.

    Comment by Tom Panarese — 2012 April 22 @ 16:12 | Reply

  2. Hmm, I wish Deborah Meier were here to argue her case. I’ve heard her speak and read her book, The Power of Their Ideas. I have quite a lot of respect for her work.

    Although I think standardized tests are causing terrible problems, your specific point seems reasonable. I’d like to see the pineapple passage myself. (The problems caused by the tests: 1. takes time away from learning, 2. emotionally oppressive to many (most?) students, especially younger students, 3. pushes schools to focus on math and reading, throwing out art, music, etc)

    Comment by Sue VanHattum — 2012 April 22 @ 18:07 | Reply

  3. Oops! I lose some reading comprehension points for not noticing that link first time around. I’ve now read the story. It sounds to me like the problem was with question 8. There are lots of kids who would like to get a perfect score on the test, who are upset that they couldn’t figure out which character was saying something wise. Does that seem unreasonable to you? (Pinkwater response here.

    Comment by Sue VanHattum — 2012 April 22 @ 18:40 | Reply

  4. I can’t find your email information. May I discuss this with you by email?

    Comment by suevanhattum — 2012 April 28 @ 09:52 | Reply

    • Although I’m not trying to keep my identity secret, I’m also trying not to be too blatant about who I am on this blog. (See Privacy of bloggers for an explanation.) I’ll try contacting you.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2012 April 28 @ 10:57 | Reply

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