The Talking Pineapple & Standardized Testing

I.  Everybody, apparently, except those who make money off of them, is against standardized testing. Most teachers and administrators criticize the tests for the burden they place on teachers to raise the test performance of students ill equipped to take such tests, the teachers blamed if kids don’t do better than students with the same demographic characteristics have done in the past. And that is not to speak of the unreliability of the tests and the control variables used to make comparisons between student groups possible. Reformers, on the other hand, criticize the tests for not allowing teachers to teach the students as they are or in creative ways, the tests measuring minor skills rather than the overall intellectual growth of a child, something that may not show up until years later.

And it is easy to ridicule such tests simply by calling into question a particular test item that seems particularly foolish. This has happened in the past week because of a reading passage called “The Hare and the Pineapple” that appeared on a standardized eighth grade reading test. The somewhat whimsical story told of a talking pineapple who challenged the hare to a race. The surrounding crowd of animals assumed the pineapple had some secret plan to win the race, but he (if it were a he) didn’t and so the hare won and the crowd ate the pineapple. One of the questions the students was asked was whether the crowd ate the pineapple because they were annoyed, amused, hungry or excited, which is the way Gail Collins put it when she reported on the test item in her Times column. How were the students to figure that out? Collins interpreted the failure of the test item as a result of the test preparer, Pearson, getting so many large contracts to construct tests.

Oh come off of it, Gail. The story was funny. A talking pineapple is funny, just the way a talking rabbit can be funny. Ever hear of Bugs Bunny? And you don’t even have to give the pineapple a peculiar voice. The image (not that you can imagine it, because from whence does the talk emerge?) is funny on its own. The story will keep the children attentive, perhaps attentive enough so that they can figure out the answer to the question, a matter which obviously eluded both Gail Collins and Ken Jennings, the top “Jeopardy” winner ever, who was also bollixed by the question.

Here is what any eighth grader, even one not schooled on Mark Twain, could easily enough deduce: the animals had outsmarted themselves. They had tried to be clever and thereby gulled themselves into thinking that something other than the obvious was true. Then, when it turned out that the pineapple was just a pineapple and so couldn’t move, they got angry about having fooled themselves and so took it out on who they thought must have been at fault, someone not themselves. And so they ate the pineapple out of annoyance. This little moral message is suitable for children who know that they prefer to blame others rather than themselves and is suitable for all adults who are surprised at the behavior of candidates who, when elected, act exactly as you would expect them to act. Voters get angry at the Congress for failing to arrive at a compromise rather than at themselves for having sent people to Congress who said during their campaigns that they would not compromise.

Gail Collins misreads the story and not because she is not, under most circumstances, a good reader. It is just that she doesn’t like standardized tests and so the items must be stupid rather than, in this case, a good measure of whether a student can look into the humor of odd objects and identify an allegory. There is more to these tests than the detractors make out, even if test companies do make a lot of money designing them.

Another example of discounting test items, this time about math rather than reading items, so as to make some other point, is provided in David C. Berliner and Bruce J. Biddle in The Manufactured Crisis: Myths, Fraud, and the Attack on America’s Public Schools. The publication date of that book, 1995, shows that this point of view, that testing is bad, has not much altered in the last fifteen years.

Evidence for the authors’ point of view is a single test item from NAEP, which is the nationwide standardized test usually considered the gold standard against which other tests are to be measured:

Suppose you have ten coins and have at least one each of a quarter, a dime, a nickel, and a penny. What is the LEAST amount of money you could have? a) 41 cents b) 47 cents c) 50 cents d) 82 cents?

The authors comment:

Because most students find it difficult to answer such questions, critics conclude that they will have difficulty with real world mathematics. But is this reasonable? In the real world, who actually cares about the least amount of money one might have from a set of coins?

Well, this son of a grocer had a father who was able to add long sums on the back of a brown grocery bag. That would suggest that in the real world people who can’t make minor calculations quickly are not regarded as quick enough to do more than pack boxes. The NAEP question is really a very easy question that tests the ability of someone to be agile with arithmetic, seeing that the bigger denomination of coins would be used as little as possible, which means one each, and the rest would be made up of pennies, which gives one quarter, one dime, one nickel and seven pennies for 47 cents. It is a good question because it deals with how well students understand arithmetic rather than whether they can do a rote calculation.

The bias of these two authors against all testing is also shown by their claim that literacy was measured in one study only on the basis of a test of reading comprehension rather than by consulting whether the people studied were either poor or unemployed, presumably the real measures of illiteracy. No, a test of reading comprehension is the best measure of whether you are literate, that fact separate from whether one can secure employment or not or whether one claims one can read. Such is the thoughtless tone of Berliner and Biddle’s highly polemical arguments.

The discrediting of testing is crucial to those who favor the delivery of education pretty much as it is, which is the case of Berliner and Biddle, or to those, like Collins, who need a way to understand why more progress hasn’t been made in improving the educational system that everybody claims is in crisis. If money isn’t the cause of the evil, then what could possibly be the cause? Those against testing want better structured schools that will provide education to weaker students so that they too will be able to fill high tech jobs and earn good salaries. That argument, adopted by President Obama, is faulty because a high tech economy can find employment for unsuccessful students as service workers at WalMart and in other jobs that don’t require much education. Moreover, high tech jobs require very, very able students of math and engineering, not just weak students who have been coaxed through high school algebra.

The bigger overall question is whether schools can do what parents and culture may fail to do, which is instill a love of learning for its own sake that can express itself in a variety of fields, and not just science, technology, medicine and engineering. Where are the classicists and historians supposed to come from? According to a weekend article in the Times, people will only be able to pay off their loans if they go into more remunerative professions than those of the humanities. But can you think of a single great civilization that did not shine in the humanities? Nineteenth Century Great Britain ruled the world from the playing fields of Eton, where students were required to take Latin. Only a nation in decline neglects the humanities. So hold out for high standards. Just don’t blame the messenger for showing that students are not learning what we want them to learn. Blame the commentators who no longer think that careful reading of a story and logical calculation in a coin problem are to be honored.

II.  Here is a natural experiment that breaks new ground. A reader of this blog may recall a week or so ago an article about the talking pineapple that was the star of a story used on an eighth grade standardized reading test. Journalists had said that they couldn’t make heads or tails out of the story even though it seemed straightforward enough to me. The animals had turned on the talking pineapple and eaten him because he had fooled them into thinking he had a secret plan to win a race with a rabbit, even though it is perfectly obvious that pineapples can’t run (even if, in this case, a pineapple can talk). The journalists, I claimed, couldn’t figure out the story because they were so biased against standardized testing.

The story of the talking pineapple is worth repeating, as I have to a number of people, because it still strikes me as funny. But people I know in education brought the story up to me on their own as an example of how stupid were the test items on standardized reading tests. I was thunderstruck. How can it be that a story plot which is perfectly obvious to me, and so obvious that expert test makers might think children should be expected to understand it, isn’t also perfectly obvious to other “competent” adults? (“Competent” is a way of saying that some people have perfected their own reading skills well enough to be able to get virtually anything they read, and are also fluent speakers of the language in which the story is told and discussed.)

So the story has a double irony. The first irony concerns what is obvious to the animals in the story, and the tricks animals (and people) play on themselves to see through the obvious and get to the reality beyond—in this case, that they should have trusted their first perception and so not fooled themselves into thinking there was more to what was going on than was going on. That would require a reader to do what a reader can do, which is what in a story (this story) was to be trusted because it was a convention of story telling (that animals or pineapples could talk) and what in the story was not to be trusted because it was problematic and perhaps wise because it had been imported into the story from the “real” world: that there is a difference between the obvious and the real and that you can fool yourself about which is which. The second irony is also about what is obvious, but this time to the real people reading the real story. The talking pineapple story is there in Twain and elsewhere in world literature and so perfectly obvious as a moral story, and yet there are real people who think that the story is literally nonsense. The real question is how real people can disagree about what is in this story that is real in that it is a story out there for real people to read.

Now, sociologists have known for a long time—indeed, it is their stock in trade—that what people think or believe or sense as obvious is conditioned by social circumstances. Marx thought the capitalists and the peasants and the working class had different points of view because of where they were located in the division of labor. Weber believed that those who had imbibed the Protestant Ethic thought about work differently than those who had not. Mannheim moved the story along by saying that people had different political points of view because of a general mind set picked up for historical reasons that also suited their condition in life. Some people were utopian and some were ideologists; some people were conservative because they believed everything they cared about was beyond politics and therefore would advance politics so as to crush their political opponents, while liberals believed that everything was political and so people were cursed with being in favor of a step at a time. And Roland Wulbert pushes the story ahead with yet another twist that makes the conditions of belief ever more internal to the thinking and feeling apparatus: a person make a presumption that allow the person to see how one sentence is coherent with regard to the sentence that has come immediately before. I expand that point to include politics. When a Republican says the Affordable Health Care Act shows Obama to be a Socialist, that requires only the assumption that any state intervention is socialistic, even if that is not the way things have unfolded historically here in the United States. Everybody brings to bear their own history of the United States, and a very complex picture that is in everyone’s separate head, however simplistic one or another of these histories may seem to someone else’s head.

The pineapple story asks us to contemplate how some very local conditions may lead to very disparate readings of what seems to be perfectly obvious. What is going on is more akin to what used to be called “mass delusions” than it is to long scale changes in historical points of view or even to changes in the way large scale history is invoked. I ran into mass delusions in graduate school when there was a “pitting” epidemic in Seattle. Numerous people had noticed that their windshields were pitted by stones. What was going on in the atmosphere? Nothing, social scientists concluded. People had just become sensitized because of newspaper publicity about the epidemic to notice that their own windshields were pitted, which is the normal situation with a great number of windshields. The same kind of thing occurs when a town suddenly notices that a lot (well, a few) of its young women seem to have the shakes. Maybe they do; maybe there has been the contagion of mutual suggestion or maybe girls in poverty filled towns are more likely to develop similar neurotic symptoms. But it probably isn’t something in the water.

The talking pineapple story indicates a delusion held by a small segment of readers: those who are invested in denigrating standardized testing. It is a delusion because the story is perfectly intelligible even though those suffering have temporarily lost their ability to treat it as intelligible. It is like the pitting and the tics in that it is a delusion that will pass when it is no longer useful and does not intrude in the ability of those suffering from it to otherwise use their reading skills. The extent to which it is an adopted pose rather than the result of having concentrated on trying to make sense of the story is probably appreciated by those who suffer from the delusion, just as people who noticed their windshields were pitted may have put out of their minds the fact that their windshields always looked this way. The talking pineapple story differs, however, from the other delusions in that it has to do with a skill—reading—that has a lot to do with higher brain functions and so is part of consciousness and so reflects how consciousness can be altered to the point of not recognizing its own powers. That is a big deal. People are abrogating what we would like to think cannot be abrogated: the ability to analyze something when that is the activity being brought forward in the mind as something to do. And the cause isn't in the water; the cause is in what people decide they want to analyze.

All these educators and journalists fail to get the point of the talking pineapple story because the immediate political circumstances get in the way of the reading process. The cue for giving the story a serious reading is not there. You know that other people are also on the lookout for finding some failure in a test item, and so it makes more sense to see no sense than to see sense in the story. What is startling to me is how easy it is to do that, to sense what correct opinion is and come to believe that one is simply stating the obvious. I have been caught out in moments like that myself. I heard Nancy Pelosi say, in 2002, that she had not heard anything in secret briefings to change her mind about the advisability of invading Iraq, but I put that aside because a few days later I heard Colin Powell announce in his United Nations speech that he was convinced Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, even though the evidence he presented I surmised, in the back of my mind, was sketchy, but I chose, if that is the word, to believe him, to raise my opinion to being a matter of belief, because I trusted him and because this time I didn’t want to be a naysayer, as is customarily my role. Maybe this time received opinion was correct. Convictions one comes to are that in that it takes evidence to overcome them. But resisting conviction also has its price in that one is then constantly on the fence and resisting common opinion just for the hell of it as well as because very few things are so clearly supported that one cannot resist coming to that conviction.

Now perform the following mental experiment. Let us say people came across the talking pineapple story in a children’s picture book that was purchased at Barnes and Noble for a grandchild. Grandpa would have no trouble following and explaining the story to a young one even if the young one had to be led through it. That is what goes on when you learn to read stories. You have to be awakened to what is not there in the story: the missing logic, the knowledge of the world outside the story, the clues in the story about what is going on. If the pineapple could talk, couldn’t he be expected to pick himself up and run? Well, yes, if that is the way the story had been laid out, but the story suspended only one true to life condition: that a pineapple could talk. And that was also suspended for the rest of the animals. Reading means making many decisions as one goes through even a few short paragraphs and what is amazing is how well children pick that up. And adults included, readers need only a single major green light to decide whether to turn their reading skills onto an item presented to them. Standardized test items do not have that signal but a red light instead: Be skeptical that this makes sense.

That people apply presumptions rather quickly and on the basis of matters circumstantial to the way they claim to understand matters, as readers and thinkers who make up their own minds rather than people who respond to a cue as to how seriously something is to be taken, is a serious matter for a number of reasons. It shows how easy it is to get deluded, which means that everybody is apt to be “inauthentic” in that they come to espouse views they know in their heart of hearts they would not espouse if it were not the comfortable thing to do. We do that about political candidates and we do it about favorite grocery products and we put aside what we know is unflattering about a spouse. That is the way to get through life. Get real; come to terms with that. Another reason this is a serious matter is that it shows liberals are as deluded in their thinking processes as the conservatives they rail against, but maybe a little less so because they claim at least to have a richer sense of American history, of the story that brought us to this point, than their Know Nothing opponents who think you should major in what will get you a job rather than in what educates you to be a responsible citizen. I sometimes think that means liberals are therefore required to be more rational than conservatives, but what I usually mean is that liberals are only true to themselves when they are fairly rational, and so willing to assess the talking pineapple story for itself alone and not just because it favors one or another side in the education wars.

The most important issue at stake, however, is the status of stories. Stories have always seemed to me the most reliable source of evidence. Declarative sentences can lie. Saying “That worm is three inches long” may be true but there is nothing in the statement that tells you that it is true. Dick Cheney may or may not be lying about weapons of mass destruction. But knowing the role Dick Cheney played in the Bush Administration and how top officials in the Bush 41 Administration noted how much he had changed when he became Vice President fills out a story where what he says become subject to question because of how truth telling fits into an overall narrative that intertwines motivation with character and circumstances. That is what all novels do. Because it is always a character who gives voice to philosophical opinions, you know not to take anything anyone says in a Saul Bellow novel without a grain of salt. Why would the Dean be saying this or that about Chicago politics? What is in it for him to take that point of view? Fiction or stories always carry with them their caveats and it is to the reader to pick those out and to sense what is to be trusted at least relatively speaking. You also pick out what is to be trusted in the talking pineapple story because you know how to read a story and although different people will notice different things, no one can legitimately notice, for example, that the story is not meant to be funny or to have a moral—except, that is, for all the competent readers who fail to do that for reasons very circumstantial to the story. But if you give up on stories as saying what they mean, as providing what is needed so that they can be interpreted, then what have you left as a source of reliable knowledge? It is a scary thought.

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