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Never Bet on an Eggplant
April 30, 2012 12:50 PM   Subscribe

What happens when you try to adapt a Daniel Pinkwater story into a standardized test.

Via The Awl.
posted by latkes (85 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite

 
Pinkwater's original story is posted to Pinkwater.com (second story down, I don't think there's a link directly to it?). CBS New York has the version that appeared on the exam.
posted by troika at 12:56 PM on April 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


What is, like, the legality of that? Pinkwater has the copyright on the work, right? Can he sue them for making an unauthorized derivative work? Does he get royalties?
posted by Galaxor Nebulon at 12:58 PM on April 30, 2012


Owl is always the wisest, duh.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 12:58 PM on April 30, 2012


What is, like, the legality of that? Pinkwater has the copyright on the work, right? Can he sue them for making an unauthorized derivative work? Does he get royalties?

He gave them the rights.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 1:00 PM on April 30, 2012


Adam Cadre has a characteristically thoughtful essay on the subject.
posted by Iridic at 1:01 PM on April 30, 2012 [10 favorites]


a.) Plate
b.) Beans
c.) All of the above
d.) None of the above
f.) Dude... wait. What?
posted by clvrmnky at 1:01 PM on April 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


What is, like, the legality of that?

"A decade or so ago, he sold the rights to a passage from one of his books to an educational-testing company"
posted by Horace Rumpole at 1:01 PM on April 30, 2012


Holy shit this is awesome.
posted by KokuRyu at 1:02 PM on April 30, 2012


The example of the story I saw was rather different [pdf].

Given that story, I contend that the hare spoke the wisest words.
posted by jeather at 1:03 PM on April 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


Hey, how about that, Daniel Pinkwater did not write In Watermelon Sugar
and I'm somewhat less confused.
posted by griphus at 1:05 PM on April 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


This was the write-up that had me laughing all day long when I read it. I love Ken Jennings, too.
posted by stoneandstar at 1:05 PM on April 30, 2012


As a product of a NYS public school, I took a lot of Regents exams. I don't recall if the 8th grade English test was around at that point, but I do remember my wonderful Miss Zawierucha telling our 11th grade class that there were no English teachers on the board that created the test.
posted by troika at 1:06 PM on April 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


man, I have NO IDEA what the correct answer to the question is.
posted by rebent at 1:08 PM on April 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


The two versions:

Pinkwater.

"The Story of the Rabbit and the Eggplant

Once there was a race between a rabbit and an eggplant. Now, the eggplant, as you know, is a member of the vegetable kingdom, and the rabbit is a very fast animal.

Everybody bet lots of money on the eggplant, thinking that if a vegetable challenges a live animal with four legs to a race, then it must be that the vegetable knows something.

People expected the eggplant to win the race by some clever trick of philosophy. The race was started, and there was a lot of cheering. The rabbit streaked out of sight.

The eggplant just sat there at the starting line. Everybody knew that in some surprising way the eggplant would wind up winning the race.

Nothing of the sort happened. Eventually, the rabbit crossed the finish line and the eggplant hadn’t moved an inch.

The spectators ate the eggplant.

Moral: Never bet on an eggplant."


Test version

"The Pineapple and the Hare"
In olden times, the animals of the forest could speak English just like you and me. One day, a pineapple challenged a hare to a race.
(I forgot to mention, fruits and vegetables were able to speak too.)
A hare is like a rabbit, only skinnier and faster. This particular hare was known to be the fastest animal in the forest.
"You, a pineapple, have the nerve to challenge me, a hare, to a race?" the hare asked the pineapple. "This must be some sort of joke."
"No," said the pineapple. "I want to race you. Twenty-six miles, and may the best animal win."
"You aren't even an animal!" the hare said. "You're a tropical fruit!"
"Well, you know what I mean," the pineapple said.
The animals of the forest thought it was very strange that a tropical fruit should want to race a very fast animal.
"The pineapple has some trick up its sleeve," a moose said.
"Pineapples don't have sleeves," an owl said.
"Well, you know what I mean," the moose said. "If a pineapple challenges a hare to a race, it must be that the pineapple knows some secret trick that will allow it to win."
"The pineapple probably expects us to root for the hare and then look like fools when it loses," said a crow. "Then the pineapple will win the race because the hare is overconfident and takes a nap, or gets lost, or something."
The animals agreed that this made sense. There was no reason a pineapple should challenge a hare unless it had a clever plan of some sort. So the animals, wanting to back a winner, all cheered for the pineapple.
When the race began, the hare sprinted forward and was out of sight in less than a minute. The pineapple just sat there, never moving an inch.
The animals crowded around, watching to see how the pineapple was going to cleverly beat the hare. Two hours later, when the hare crossed the finish line, the pineapple was still sitting still, and hadn't moved an inch.
The animals ate the pineapple.

MORAL: Pineapples don't have sleeves."

posted by latkes at 1:08 PM on April 30, 2012 [3 favorites]


Adapting existing works into test questions can lead to trouble. This is the sample question (the sample question, mind you) from the guide to my Province's grade 12 English exam. I still don't know what the answer is.

A: The chickens portray the stereotypical "worried parent" / "smug gamer" stereotype.
B: One wouldn't expect a video game to make someone play in traffic, ha ha!
C: The gaming chicken takes "video games make people do things" to its hyperbolic extreme.
D: THEY'RE CHICKENS AND THEY MENTION CROSSING A ROAD TO GET TO THE OTHER SIDE

posted by EmGeeJay at 1:09 PM on April 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


After reading Adam Cadre's commentary, I want to know about the "Vortex of Itchy Doom."
posted by Faint of Butt at 1:11 PM on April 30, 2012


a) Mayri b) Clay c) Lee d) Turno
posted by miyabo at 1:12 PM on April 30, 2012


The first coverage I saw of this was on 4/20. It took ages to realize that this was a real thing that had happened, and not just a trick various news outlets were playing on stoners.
posted by jeudi at 1:13 PM on April 30, 2012 [4 favorites]


I saw a few write ups on this last week. The questions are all completely reasonable questions, or at least no sillier/more obtuse than any other questions on reading comp tests. The only difference was that the story was interesting and a bit off the wall instead of being the usual Janet listening to her grandmother telling a story about her childhood or Harry learning to tolerate his younger sister on a road trip in 500 words. Someone tried to make their job and these tests more fun, and now someone is getting fired for it.

Anyway, Pinkwater's reactions were great -

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.

posted by Garm at 1:14 PM on April 30, 2012 [4 favorites]


Adam Cadre has a characteristically thoughtful essay on the subject.

I was confused by this essay. He explains that to answer this question correctly you'd have to walk into the test with a bunch of shared cultural context. I agree that true reading comprehension includes brining your previous cultural experience to the passage, but I don't think that's fair to do in standardized testing because it privileges the culture of the test writer (usually a member of the dominant culture), and he aknowledges that this is avoided in standardized tests (for, presumably, this reason). How does he end with the conclusion that the passage and question are a-OK?
posted by latkes at 1:15 PM on April 30, 2012 [3 favorites]


Wow. The NY Regents creators have done the impossible and made Daniel Pinkwater even more surreal.

For reference, the original Eggplant and the Rabbit passage comes from Borgel. We are talking about a book which involves a trip across time and space (which is incidentally "like an eliptically shaped bagel with poppy seeds") with a talking dog, in a flying car, in search of a great popsicle. With frequent semi-philosophical diversions, like the eggplant story above.

The story really shouldn't have to get any trippier than that. AND YET IT DOES!
posted by ActionPopulated at 1:17 PM on April 30, 2012 [3 favorites]


Wait, this is very mysterious: why are there two, totally different versions of the pinapple version of this story floating around?! So confusing.
posted by latkes at 1:21 PM on April 30, 2012


Why did the animals eat the pineapple:

A) they were annoyed
B) they were amused
C) they were hungry
D) they wanted to


That is in no way a fair question.
posted by jsturgill at 1:30 PM on April 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


"Herein lay the genius, perhaps, of the reading exam and the Pinkwater passage. The answer key was embedded within the text. Don’t overthink. Humans are just like animals. Put your pencil down and eat the test."
-Ben McGrath
posted by obscurator at 1:31 PM on April 30, 2012 [5 favorites]


That is in no way a fair question.

Yeah, it's not the actual question.
posted by muddgirl at 1:37 PM on April 30, 2012


This is definitely a double. Didn't we just go through this pineapple sleeves thing in a recent thread? I couldn't find the link.
posted by charlie don't surf at 1:52 PM on April 30, 2012


Pinkwater wrote the best book that I've ever read about dadaist teenagers.

also, I still dream of Green Death Chilli.
posted by jb at 1:54 PM on April 30, 2012 [11 favorites]


Why do people think that multiple choice testing has any possible use in this context? Essay answers are the only sensible way to test english ability at higher grade levels, unless the questions as things like 'Who wrote Romeo and Juliet? William Shakespeare/Whitesnake/Leonardo di Caprio.' I'm in favor of standardized testing but this whole thing is just stupid.

I don't think much of Pinkwater's original fable either, due its pointlessly contrived premise, but at worst it's just silly, whereas the version and questions offered in the test are moronic.
posted by anigbrowl at 2:06 PM on April 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


That is in no way a fair question.

Yeah, it's not the actual question.


then what is the actual question? Because that's the one repeated in the various news reports. If you know of another, please link to it.
posted by anigbrowl at 2:07 PM on April 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


There are people without whose contributions the world would be so much poorer that we can only be dumbfoundedly grateful for their existence. Mel Blanc comes to mind, too. I'd just like to say that Daniel Pinkwater should live to be 500 years old, and should continue writing books the whole time.
posted by Sing Or Swim at 2:16 PM on April 30, 2012 [6 favorites]


Essay answers are the only sensible way to test english ability at higher grade levels

Yes, and this test also has a written essay component which is scored by people like me. This issue is only about the multiple choice part of the test.

And I swear this is a double. I searched and searched and could not find it. I am sure we discussed this question in detail. Someone help me out.
posted by charlie don't surf at 2:17 PM on April 30, 2012


from jeather's link, the actual question is:
The animals at the pineapple most likely because they were
A) hungry
B) excited
C) annoyed
D) amused

....which is even less possible to answer.
posted by yeolcoatl at 2:17 PM on April 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


*ate
posted by yeolcoatl at 2:18 PM on April 30, 2012


“There was one about a fish who thought he was drowning,” he said. “The moral is: Animals are stupid. There was another about a mole who said that he was a fox. The fox said, ‘Well, you sure are an ugly one.’ The moral is: Who cares?

Oh fuck I love Daniel Pinkwater so much.

Snarkin' Out 4 Ever

posted by Potomac Avenue at 2:24 PM on April 30, 2012 [4 favorites]


I was quoting from stoneandstar's link. Perhaps that article wasn't well researched and didn't get the question exactly right, or maybe there have been multiple versions of the question over the years.

Regardless, the question in both forms it has been presented to us is assinine and unfair to the students.
posted by jsturgill at 2:24 PM on April 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


Pinkwater wrote the best book that I've ever read about dadaist teenagers.

Oh hell yes he did. That first chapter about Kevin Shapiro is one of the funniest literary parodies I've ever read.
posted by nebulawindphone at 2:41 PM on April 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


Both sets of questions are undoubtedly silly, but one is silly in the way that all multiple choice tests are silly (namely, that it is based on cultural assumptions of how a text is to be read) and the other is a clear satire of such multiple choice responses. I don't know where Eyder Peralta got that list of answers, because as far as I can see it's not in any of the links. The NY Daily News has the 'hungry/excited/annoyed/amused' set, along with several other questions.
posted by muddgirl at 2:49 PM on April 30, 2012


It looks like the NYDN silently corrected their original story.
posted by muddgirl at 2:53 PM on April 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


Oh man, I loved Daniel Pinkwater when I was a young teen. Sometimes I felt a little self-conscious about how close to home his stories hit (oh this story is again about a chubby awkward Jewish kid what a coincidence hmm hmm it must be weird to be a chubby awkward Jewish kid), but damn, they were good. Those ones about the kids that snuck out at night into a weird underworld of midnight intrigue totally gave me the feeling that there was something out there more fantastic, less shitty and crushing than middle school.
posted by threeants at 2:57 PM on April 30, 2012 [3 favorites]


FYI, you can hear Daniel read the original story in his Uncle Borgel voice. (Borgel, chapter 2, ~4:25, but why not just listen to the whole thing?)
posted by greatgefilte at 3:02 PM on April 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


Muddgirl, I don't think the better version is acceptable, even within a multiple choice context. The story literally does not provide any motivation for the eating of the pineapple. Getting the right answer relies entirely on guessing the cultural (and/or emotional) baggage of the person who wrote the question. That baggage is all there is. The question makes no sense within the context of the story. It's like a zen koan. Mu is the only right answer. Do you get extra points for leaving it blank or something?

Sure, it would be a fun creative essay question, or prompt for a short story or something. It would be a blast, I bet, to argue with your buddy about it for hours on a road trip. But there is no basis within the context of the story for any one answer to that question being better than the other, particularly when the slip-shod, fantastical, whimsical nature of the narrative is considered. Tossing in a "most likely" does not allow for the multiple choice testing of reading comprehension of contextual clues or character motivations that don't exist in the first place.
posted by jsturgill at 3:37 PM on April 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


This is a "guess what the teacher is thinking" question.

The thing is, high-performing students — almost by definition — are very, very good at answering "guess what the teacher is thinking" questions. In a fucked up way, this question probably is a good one for picking out students that will do well in future English classes, just because students who can't play this sort of guessing game well will tend to be at a disadvantage.
posted by nebulawindphone at 3:49 PM on April 30, 2012 [3 favorites]


The story literally does not provide any motivation for the eating of the pineapple.

No, the story does not say "They ate the pineapple because they were annoyed at losing the bet." Standardized reading comprehension tests are not testing for memorization, they are testing for analysis. It's certainly possible that they ate the pineapple because they thought it was a funny joke, but that's not the most likely answer.

Again, I think standardized tests are universally problematic for the very reason that they rely on common cultural assumptions that not all people share. But I don't think this particular question is unusual.
posted by muddgirl at 3:55 PM on April 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


I preface my comments with the remark that they only represent one individual's experience (mine), at a single company, and I do not claim any privileged knowledge or deep understanding of the industry. Take my comments with a grain of salt.

In early 2007 I spent several months as a "post-graduate intern" (read: probationary employee) at a midsized company that provided content and services to large educational publishers and their various imprints. I had spent a part of the previous summer doing a bit of student teaching in kindergarten, and wanted to see how educational materials get made. The answer is that you can add "educational content" to "hot dogs" and "legislation" on that infamous list.

My pre-hire assignment was to write a short reading passage, pitched at a third-grade reading level, and include three multiple-choice questions that are based on the text and address one or more items in the state educational standards ("§3.6.2: Children will read narrative passages of 80-100 words and interpret their meaning." Meaning?). I based my passage on Oscar Wilde's "The Happy Prince," squeezing the outline of this touching and melancholy tale into, I think, 150 words, making the necessary edits and omissions. I wrote simple questions testing basic reading comprehension. The feedback came back: "Very overwritten, but will do."

I started work in the English (or, to use the parlance of the times, "language arts") division, working alongside seasoned, experienced editors, copyeditors, layout designers, and project managers. The fact that my division seemingly contained no writers came as something of a surprise. Hadn't I just written a test passage to demonstrate my abilities?

It turned out that the business model for educational content creation (in "language arts," at least) is rather less romantic than I had envisioned. Content assignments are farmed out to an army of small-time contractors with some kind of nominal qualifications — stay-at-home moms, former school librarians, and so on. Overwhelmingly, the assignments are not story ideas or anything the like; the basis is grade level, mean word length, schematic adherence to state educational standards (see above), and volume, volume, volume. I think the pay is per passage, rather than by the word.

The result is a stream of unmitigated crap, crap that is unremitting and remarkably homogeneous. It took a small army of editors (myself included) to cull them into readable shape, although "polish" and "readability" didn't seem to be the first priority in the division where I worked. (A major reason why I wasn't kept past my initial probation period was that I slowed the process down by making too many requests for edits.)

The passages that I saw read as though they had been written in a single sitting, by someone whose imagination had been bled completely dry, and yet had to keep writing. It went beyond what is traditionally termed merely "bad writing." They were bland and stupid, full of ridiculous non sequiturs; in places they glared with omissions of crucial sentences, and elsewhere the same sentence would be repeated in paraphrase. In places where the mean word length had to be increased, the author would stop using pronouns. Elsewhere, to decrease the mean number of words per sentence, there would be a string of staccato snippets in a row. They were dull soap operas about magical forest animals and tedious stories about children that went seemingly nowhere. They read like stuff written by bored ninth-graders on the night before a deadline. Except they were written by paid adults, as piece-work.

The questions were similar in nature and quality. It wasn't unusual to find a question in a passage for, say, a third-grade or fourth-grade textbook, that had no good answer among the choices provided, or that required the answerer to make an absurd leap of logic, or read the item in a particular way. Other questions were absurd, half-hearted attempts to connect the reading to the almighty Standards. A common motif was to take a word from the passage (e.g. "saw," the past tense of "see"), draw a box around it with the word "dictionary," and ask something like the following: "If you looked up the word saw (line 5) in a dictionary, which of the following definitions would you see? (a) an instrument for cutting wood, (b) run, (c) see."

It was frustrating, and humiliating, and tedious, to fix, and to struggle, and to correct, and to rewrite, and to eliminate questions with no answer, knowing that it was futile, and hopeless, and beside the point. Children, thousands of children, would read these horrible passages instead of, say, Oscar Wilde's wonderful fairy tales, wry and ironic and sentimental. They would read dozens and hundreds of these passages in grades one through four and up. They were inescapable. The children would read nothing else for years. Publishers sell schools complete packages that are closed systems and don't have any room for supplementation: reading, writing, and exercise books distributed in little cardboard suitcases. The children would drill all year on how to read these passages and how to best answer the dumb questions, even the ones without real answers (no doubt prodded by teachers with monolithic faith in the authority of the materials).

And that was education.

Below I provide an example of an edited story of which I kept a copy. I can't remember the reading level, or whether it ended up in a book somewhere. "No copyright violation is intended," as the kids say on YouTube.

The Forgotten Contest
   Pete and Rascal were best friends and brothers. They were always together. They had a lot of fun together. Also, they competed with each other sometimes. But they enjoyed playing so much that their small arguments never lasted very long.
   These puppies had great personalities. Everyone liked them because they were so friendly. But like most animals, they were not perfect. In fact, they cared a little too much about the way that they looked.
   Of course, this was not all their fault. Their human family was always taking their pictures and talked about how “adorable” the puppies were. After a while, Pete and Rascal started to believe what they heard.
   One afternoon, the puppies were resting after a long game. They had been wrestling, which was their favorite sport. Their talk soon turned to their good looks. “Today, a little girl told me that I am as cute as a button,” Pete said. “Now, I’m not sure that buttons are cute, but I think she meant it. Sometimes it’s hard to look this good.”
   “I know just what you mean,” said Rascal. “Just a few hours ago, a little girl told me that she could eat me up. I was scared at first, but I think she was trying to be nice.”
   “That may be,” Pete said, “but of course you are not as cute as I am.”
   “Excuse me,” said Rascal, “that is not true. There are two pictures of me on the refrigerator, and only one of you. Just think about that for a minute.”
   “There’s only one way to settle this,” Pete said. “Let’s have a contest to see who is the cutest puppy.”
   “You’re on!” said Rascal.
   The puppies agreed that the competition would be held in two days, which would give them plenty of time to get ready. But a funny thing happened as they practiced wagging their tails and walking down the hall: they grew apart. They were so focused on the contest that they did not have time to play or talk as they usually did.
   Finally, the day of the contest came. Rascal was perfecting his walk. Pete was wagging his tail one last time. Suddenly, Rascal bumped into Pete. At that moment, both puppies realized that they had not practiced playing. It was time to get to work.
   Pete and Rascal played for so long that they forgot to have their contest. Finally, when they were so exhausted that they could not stand, they fell to the floor. “Let’s face it,” Pete said. “We’re both awfully cute. Anyway, who cares? Playing with you is more important than some silly contest.”
   “I know,” said Rascal. “Let’s make sure that we never let anything so silly come between us again.”
   From that day forward, the puppies never argued again about who was cuter.
And here are some random sentences from passages and essay prompts that I collected:Enjoy!
posted by Nomyte at 4:41 PM on April 30, 2012 [64 favorites]


The answer is always C.
posted by ifandonlyif at 4:52 PM on April 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


I discovered a good one today, courtesy of an old released standardized exam. You are asked to find an empirical formula from mass percentages, but the 'correct' answer is chemically impossible. The question actually punishes students who know too much by tricking them into thinking they've done something wrong.
posted by Dr.Enormous at 4:56 PM on April 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'd really like to see that chemistry question. I have scored several Chem exams and I've never seen anything like that. I have seen a few (rare) instances where I went to bat with supervisors to give points to kids who clearly "knew too much" and expressed the answer in terms way over the level of the exam so they were considered wrong by the rubric. They got their points.
posted by charlie don't surf at 5:11 PM on April 30, 2012


It's certainly possible that they ate the pineapple because they thought it was a funny joke, but that's not the most likely answer.

Everything in that story happens because it is a funny joke.

The story is surreal and whimsical, with purposefully opaque characters that behave in inconsistent and contradictory ways. To create and then insert a reductive, commonplace motivation ("they were annoyed") into those particular characters (even if at the level of "best among the provided bad answers") is to be the opposite of a good reader.

I agree with you that it is not an unusual question for standardized tests. But if you think the question suitably tests for analysis of the story at that grade level, then we do disagree.
posted by jsturgill at 5:16 PM on April 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


Pinkwater wrote the best book that I've ever read about dadaist teenagers.

Young adult novel. I took it out over and over from my public library.

This year I obtained an out of print copy to share with my son, read it aloud to him in one sitting, we laughed till we cried.

Pinkwater introduced me to dadaism ... but it wasn't until I reread it as an adult I realized the book also made fun of Heroic Realism.

I also loved the snarkout boys (and rat's beloved beat poet who had to work in the drive through donut shop by day) and the subversive pirate radio hosts (with their dark histories featuring giant chicken).
posted by chapps at 5:26 PM on April 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


To create and then insert a reductive, commonplace motivation ("they were annoyed") into those particular characters (even if at the level of "best among the provided bad answers") is to be the opposite of a good reader.
The animals agreed that this made sense. There was no reason a pineapple should challenge a hare unless it had a clever plan of some sort. So the animals, wanting to back a winner, all cheered for the pineapple.
This is the key phrase they are testing for. No, knowing this doesn't necessarily make anyone a good reader. It makes them a good standardized reading comprehension test taker.

But if you think the question suitably tests for analysis of the story at that grade level, then we do disagree.

I thought I was being pretty clear that I don't think the story or the question are particularly useful. I called it both silly and problematic, like (dare I say) all standardized reading comprehension tests.
posted by muddgirl at 5:28 PM on April 30, 2012


From Pinkwater's summary is pretty funny.
I particularly liked:

I received this email from an eighth-grader: “Listen, I love your work, but seriously? Selling out to the state test?

“Also, before my class goes crazy, which was the wisest animal in ‘The Hare and the Pineapple’?”


Of course an 8th grade Pinkwater reader would object to selling out to the state! (Kevin Shapiro would never have written that letter, poor sad git).
posted by chapps at 5:38 PM on April 30, 2012


The animals agreed that this made sense. There was no reason a pineapple should challenge a hare unless it had a clever plan of some sort. So the animals, wanting to back a winner, all cheered for the pineapple.

This is the key phrase they are testing for. No, knowing this doesn't necessarily make anyone a good reader. It makes them a good standardized reading comprehension test taker.


So let's say we agree that the animals are annoyed, how do we conclude that the animals have no qualms about eating a being that is demonstrably capable of speech? If we're anthropomorphizing them, then it makes sense to consider them in human terms and I think most humans would balk at eating something capable of speech just because they're annoyed.

And on the other hand, it's a freaking pineapple: maybe it's chief goal in life is to be eaten and if you're annoyed at it, surely the one thing you're not going to do is to help it achieve that goal?
posted by juv3nal at 6:01 PM on April 30, 2012 [5 favorites]


Oh my god. I knew before I'd clicked on the link what was going on here. And it's hysterical.

Like Nomyte, I have some professional experience in this area. A few pretty miserable years editing development for standardized tests. And you know how this stuff happens? It's like Telephone.

There's a story that's perfectly fine, and if it's an story and not the absolute drivel that gets written for the tests, it may be pretty great. Then:

The content reviewers get hold of it and change some little part (let's say eggplant to pineapple).

The teachers who review it change some little part (maybe the "witty" sleeves bit).

The state department who contracts with the test development company has all sorts of ideas about what is allowed to be shown -- for example, every picture or scenario in any of our tests that has anyone riding a bike or rollerblading, using a scooter, rollerskates, skateboard, whatever had to be in full padding. We had lists of first names that were OK to use in test "items" (questions). Diversity was taken very seriously in this list of names. In upper grades, of course, there was to be no mention whatsoever of basically anything objectionable: sex, love, death -- which makes it really hard to find "classic literature" to take excerpts from, which was what we were supposed to be doing in high school tests. The example from the Pinkwater story would be: betting. We were not even allowed to use "die" or "dice" in math word problems; we used "a six-sided number cube."

Now the exception here is that most of the work we did that was not produced expressly for the test (and I did not work on NY state test development) was on stories where we had been granted copyright ONLY for the test. We were not allowed to change any words or punctuation in those stories unless it was glaringly, confusingly, grammatically wrong. If they bought the story from Pinkwater outright, though, I bet this is how it died: painfully, by a thousand editorial cuts.
posted by fiercecupcake at 6:35 PM on April 30, 2012 [5 favorites]


I don't disagree with you, since we are both adults on a message board and not 8th grade students (around 14 years old) taking a standardized test.

Again, I'm not defending the question. I'm defending the premise that this is a 'bad' multiple choice reading comprehension test question (which presumes that there are good multiple choice reading comprehension test questions, a premise that I dispute based on my many years of taking and acing standardized tests).
posted by muddgirl at 6:37 PM on April 30, 2012


By you I mean juv3nal.
posted by muddgirl at 6:38 PM on April 30, 2012


Muddgirl, I wasn't precise enough with my objection in the sentence you quoted. The problem lives beyond the question of whether or not the prompt is suitable for testing the student's ability to analyze the story. The problem is that the chain of reasoning you point out ("The animals wanted to back a winner. The pineapple they backed lost the race. Because they didn't get what they wanted, the animals were most likely annoyed, and that is the most likely reason for them to eat the pineapple.") simply doesn't work for this story. The nature of the story is to defy and confound expectations, the nature of the characters is unclear and undeveloped, and there is simply no way for a conscientious reader of any age to go down the proposed path. Thinking in those terms is a sign of poor analysis, not close reading. The question doesn't work even as poorly as a multiple choice reading comprehension question can work.

This isn't to say that your analysis is wrong, or you are wrong. You saw clearly what the test takers wanted and pointed it out. That's fine. But what they want pointed out is absurd and wrong.
posted by jsturgill at 6:41 PM on April 30, 2012 [3 favorites]


And now I've got a fierce craving for eggplant.
posted by fiercecupcake at 6:42 PM on April 30, 2012


Here is my standard, lazy, go-to eggplant recipe.
posted by Nomyte at 6:52 PM on April 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


But what they want pointed out is absurd and wrong.

And again, IME this is no different than any other reading comprehension question which looks for the 'meaning' of the passage in such a way. So while I find this to be an amusing look at the process I find it hard to get worked up unless we are evaluating the whole idea of asking multiple choice questions to judge comprehension.
posted by muddgirl at 6:59 PM on April 30, 2012


I told this anecdote to my 9 year old today, she's a big fan of Pinkwater, and she laughed righteously at both versions of the story. When I was talking about standardized test questions, she pretty well summed up how they seem to usually work. I was failing to come up with a good example story, to talk about test questions generally, and the best I could do was something like this:

"Jack and Jill went for a walk. They were hungry so they picked some apples. Then they went to their friend's house.

Why did they pick the apples?
a) To eat
b) To give them as a present
c) To throw at people"

She thoughtfully added that in a test question, the story would end that they also picked some flowers as a gift for the friend, but lost them before they got to the friend's house, and ended up giving their apples as a gift instead. Her addition captured the way many conventional standardized test stories contain a clear and specific clue to the answer, but often also a red herring to direct you toward a wrong answer if you're not reading closely.

I have to agree with the folks who think this pineapple story makes for an unconventional (and impossible) test question that has problems beyond the usual problems of standardized test questions in that there is no way to find the correct answer within the story. All you can do is take a wild guess based on your understanding of the world or of what the grader wants. The characters and story are so wacky that predicting their behavior is impossible, and none of the provided answers are included in the story directly or indirectly.
posted by latkes at 7:21 PM on April 30, 2012


Authorial intent is one difference. There's zero indication that the author intended annoyance to be read as a motivation for the animals' actions, or that he even thought of that question himself for half a second. It's being placed into the narrative by a lazy reader/test writer who doesn't like, appreciate, or understand language.

There are many other similar multiple choice questions (or their could be, at any rate) that ask for interpretations that live more clearly within the text of the writing sample. Those questions would also be problematic, sure, but only half as inherently wrong-headed.
posted by jsturgill at 7:23 PM on April 30, 2012


"Herein lay the genius, perhaps, of the reading exam and the Pinkwater passage. The answer key was embedded within the text. Don’t overthink. Humans are just like animals. Put your pencil down and eat the test."

Oh man, I love that not only does McGrath counsel that The problem with multiple-choice tests is that they invite overthinking, but that "don't overthink the obvious or you will make a ridiculous mistake" is ACTUALLY THE MORAL OF THE FABLE. Layers upon layers, people!
posted by psoas at 7:47 PM on April 30, 2012 [6 favorites]


Should've changed it to a cantaloupe.
posted by dirigibleman at 7:55 PM on April 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


Pinkwater's finest book is The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death. It has nutritious milkshakes made from bullfrogs, characters who snark out to the movies, the best hi-fi, a beer garden where the proprietor will stick his thumb in your baked potato then fill the hole with butter, Rat (the rat faced girl obsessed with James Dean), a singing chicken and so much more. The man is a gift.
posted by fieldtrip at 8:04 PM on April 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


And on the other hand, it's a freaking pineapple: maybe it's chief goal in life is to be eaten and if you're annoyed at it, surely the one thing you're not going to do is to help it achieve that goal?

Welcome to my "If you were a candy bar, what would you be and why?" college entrance essay.
posted by lumensimus at 8:55 PM on April 30, 2012


When I was in sixth grade, one of the many things we did during the year was DARE, the anti-drug program. Apparently at some point we all wrote essays about stuff we'd learned from DARE. I was a pretty good writer, for a sixth grader, but I don't remember writing that essay at all.

I must have written something, though, because one day my teacher called me up to her desk to tell me that I had won the essay contest. I would have a chance to read my essay at the award ceremony, to be held one evening the next week, over at the high school auditorium. My essay had needed just a little bit of editing, which she had done; could I read the new version and tell her what I thought? What I thought was "what essay contest?" and "what award ceremony?", but I didn't say those things. I looked at the essay, and it was like it was written in a foreign language. I didn't recognize a single phrase that I'd written, not even my style. The line about not wanting to be "a social 'nerd' ", complete with the scare quotes, clinched it for me: I hadn't written this thing. I was the biggest nerd in the world, and everybody knew it, and everybody was fine with it. The teacher had written this tragically awkward essay and put my name at the top, for reasons which defied understanding.

"Will you read it at the ceremony?" she asked.

"I guess," I said, and promptly forgot about the whole thing again.

So then one day late the next week, everybody in the class is talking about this essay stuff again. They had actually all gone to this big to-do the night before and seen each other, and my name had been called and I hadn't been there, and so my tragic teacher got to read her tragic essay with my name on it. "It was really funny," said one of my classmates who usually ignored me because he was an illiterate thug. "I liked the part about being a nerd."

MORAL: The "test version" of Pinkwater's story should have won this year's missing Pulitzer for fiction, and the Pulitzer should be renamed the "Pinkwater Sleeveless Pineapple Award" so that its contribution to Pinkwater's reputation is never forgotten.
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 9:27 PM on April 30, 2012 [10 favorites]


a) because it was hungry
b) because it was annoyed
c) to get to the other side
d) it was stapled to the chicken
posted by flabdablet at 9:38 PM on April 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


Both sets of questions are undoubtedly silly, but one is silly in the way that all multiple choice tests are silly (namely, that it is based on cultural assumptions of how a text is to be read) and the other is a clear satire of such multiple choice responses.

They're semantically identical. The one quoted above isn't verbatim, but is an accurate paraphrase. Cultural assumptions don't come into it. The 'correct' answer is the one about annoyance, which is a natural reaction to a frustrated expectation, whereas no causal inference can be constructed from any of the other 3 options. (And lest this chain of reasoning be called out as a cultural assumption, show me a culture that doesn't have anthropomorphized animal fables.)
posted by anigbrowl at 10:04 PM on April 30, 2012


Adam Cadre has a characteristically thoughtful essay on the subject.

I was confused by this essay. He explains that to answer this question correctly you'd have to walk into the test with a bunch of shared cultural context. I agree that true reading comprehension includes brining your previous cultural experience to the passage, but I don't think that's fair to do in standardized testing because it privileges the culture of the test writer (usually a member of the dominant culture), and he aknowledges that this is avoided in standardized tests (for, presumably, this reason). How does he end with the conclusion that the passage and question are a-OK?
posted by latkes at 1:15 PM on April 30 [3 favorites +] [!]


Latkes: I read the article and I felt Cadre came to the opposite conclusion.

Creators of reading comp sections on standardized tests aim to write them such that outside knowledge is neither required nor helpful, lest they devolve into tests of whether students have spent their childhoods steeped in the "right" environment. But here's the thing. These passages are not written from whole cloth specifically for these tests. They are adapted from published works: novels, magazine articles, newspaper stories, opinion columns. And when people in the real world write stuff, in nearly all cases, they are attempting to add to an existing discourse. Similarly, reading is, to a great extent, an exercise in hooking up new information to your existing knowledge base.

posted by Qberting at 12:04 AM on May 1, 2012


"Stapled to the chicken" is actually a pretty safe guess, seeing as it's Daniel Pinkwater and all.
posted by nebulawindphone at 12:08 AM on May 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


The answer is because they were hungry. If you suspect some other reason, you are falling into the same reasoning trap the animals did. Pineapples don't have sleeves, and animals don't have ulterior motives.
posted by BurnChao at 4:54 AM on May 1, 2012 [11 favorites]


1) everything else aside, if Maria Tater is an example of the quality of teaching at Harvard, I'm glad I didn't go there. Jeez, what a joke.

2) I understand the purpose of multiple choice reading comprehension tests, and they've always been easy for me, because I find it pretty straightforward to know how they want you to answer. But I find them upsetting in that they implicitly train children that there can only be one correct interpretation of a piece of literature. That is a real shame.
posted by windykites at 6:10 AM on May 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


The answer is because they were hungry. If you suspect some other reason, you are falling into the same reasoning trap the animals did. Pineapples don't have sleeves, and animals don't have ulterior motives.

In all seriousness, I thought this came closest to a "right" answer, and it's what I would have answered if I had to take this test for real. The moral is everyone is more like what you think they are like, and will behave in predictable ways. Any living being will eat a pineapple because they are hungry or perhaps even better, because it is delicious.
posted by latkes at 6:29 AM on May 1, 2012


"Because they were hungry" is probably the closest answer to a "correct" one.

However, I will bet you dollars to donuts that the answer which would have been marked as being the correct one on the test is "Because they were annoyed".

A test of this kind is never about figuring out the correct answer. It is about figuring out the answer that the people who wrote the test want you to give.
posted by kyrademon at 7:35 AM on May 1, 2012


But here's the thing. These passages are not written from whole cloth specifically for these tests. They are adapted from published works: novels, magazine articles, newspaper stories, opinion columns. -- Qberting

Not in the high-stakes testing of the very large state I worked for. I'd say it was at least 50/50, if not more like 75/25, new material vs. adapted works. It's a LOT cheaper to pay someone to write dreck for the test than to acquire permission and/or copyrights.
posted by fiercecupcake at 7:48 AM on May 1, 2012


Lizard Music forevar!

And EEEK! I just noticed you can get MP3s of him reading his own books: http://www.pinkwater.com/podcast/audioarchive.php
posted by wenestvedt at 9:11 AM on May 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


On any of the ETS tests (SAT, SAT II, AP), the questions are all validated beforehand. That is, when you take the test in 2012, some of your questions are not actually graded, but are there just to make sure that the question itself is OK; out of thousands of these questions, a small fraction will make it on to the test for 2013.

Doing this is expensive -- you have to start with lots of extra questions, and you have to hire statisticians. It seems that none of the states have shelled out for this kind of service, and just issue totally unproven tests that have a good chance of not making any sense.
posted by miyabo at 9:13 AM on May 1, 2012


Content assignments are farmed out to an army of small-time contractors with some kind of nominal qualifications — stay-at-home moms, former school librarians, and so on.

Emphasis on 'army,' here. My wife, for a long time, was a member of this army, and for a week I was too. She was working as a freelance contractor for a small editorial content company that in turn does contracted work for educational publishing companies. She'd get assigned as a writer, sometimes, but usually as an copyeditor, which is what I did for that week.

This was high school math content (maybe 9th grade, I don't remember now). Essentially, this was the setup: The contracting company would email us ('us' meaning my wife and I as well as the who-knows-how-many others working on this same batch of items) and say, just for e.g., 'We need these two hundred items given a 3rd-level edit by tomorrow.' We got paid per item signed off on, and were pretty overtly pitched in competition with one another: the faster you work, the more of this list of 200 items will have your sign-off on them, and the more money you make; the less money everyone else makes. Every item gets looked at a minimum of three times, and some of these items had been sitting in this online system for well over a year, moldering. I'm still not entirely clear on what the whole sausage assembly line looks like.

So, we were doing math. This online system where all the test questions were stored used a specific markup language to denote mathematical symbols, but the earlier iteration of the online system used a different markup language to denote mathematical symbols: We were only supposed to look at each item and make sure it was in the new markup language, and to ensure that the weird idiosyncrasies of that language were satisfied (there was supposed to be an invisible carriage return after each equation, for example). We were re-checking after a different team of nobodies had already combed through these same items to make sure that the old markup language was changed to the new markup language. It was a tedious process which encouraged glossing over big swaths of items. However, we also had the ability, like with a Wiki, to peek at the editing history for each item, which came in handy sometimes, because: On more than one occasion, I found items that had been completely altered when the markup language was updated. I found equations without equal signs. I found multiple choice questions with two identical answers. Word problems which didn't end with a question, and then mysterious and enigmatic answers to choose from.

And I wasn't even supposed to be checking for these things. Undoubtedly, someone would before these things went to print, but for every wildly incorrect item that I would take the time to correct, I could feel that list of 200 available items dwindling, each one pinging off in the back of my head as my check got smaller and smaller in my future. It was a system which was structured to actively discourage editorial thought. Fixing errors cost me money.
posted by shakespeherian at 9:29 AM on May 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


miyabo, the tests I worked on (which were grades 2-12 high-stakes standardized tests) all included "field test items," and some years students took tests that were entirely "field tests." I think this is common practice in state testing, actually. No one who took our tests was ever graded on a question that had not been field tested previously.
posted by fiercecupcake at 9:29 AM on May 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


shakespeherian, that was my job, wayyy down the line, finding those things. Those items were proofed at least 8 times before they made it into print proofs and proofed word-for-word again, and then test booklets were proofed another 4 times per form. 60 forms per test = a shit-ton of proofing.
posted by fiercecupcake at 9:33 AM on May 1, 2012


I now understand why I always scored much lower on reading comprehension than on any other part of the test, even though I've always spent more time reading than in any other single activity.

Also, I don't know if pineapples want to be eaten, but they want you to eat cucumbers.
posted by eritain at 10:08 AM on May 1, 2012


"Harriet has never eaten seaweed. She found herself eating it all night long."

Lovecraftian horror seems appropriate on standardized tests.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 10:19 PM on May 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


The Shadow over Innsmouth, by H. P. Lovecraft
I was visiting New England and was told that Innsmouth was cheap to visit. It used to be a mill town, but was mostly abandoned. The people who I asked didn't have much to say about the town, so I looked up more in the library.

I found out that there were rumours of devil worship there, but I went anyway. I was the only person on the bus except for the driver.

When I got to my hotel, I saw that everyone in Innsmouth looked similar and their skulls were strangely shaped.

I met a man named Zadok Allen, who told me stories about the town. He said there were monsters that lived in the ocean. He claimed that the people who lived there killed visitors because the monsters told them to.

I didn't believe him, so he took me to the docks and showed me.

The townspeople and the monsters chased us, but I hid in the bushes and they didn't find me. After I escaped, I went back to Boston and the government blew up the town.
The Order of Dagon chased the narrator most likely because they were:

a) Hungry
b) Lustful
c) Annoyed
d) Foreigners
posted by frimble at 11:43 PM on May 1, 2012 [7 favorites]


Shouldn't those answers be denominated in blasphemous, squamous glyphs when faced with which the human mind rapidly erodes into gibbering insanity?
posted by No-sword at 11:58 PM on May 2, 2012


Incidentally, if anyone is interest in some of the statistical work on questions in standarized tests, check out Item Response Theory.
posted by gryftir at 2:54 PM on May 13, 2012


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