My eighth graders and the pineapple question

After day one of testing, I asked my students, “How did it go? What did you think?” They had just taken the multiple choice portion of the NY State ELA Exam that included The Pineapple and the hare story and the ridiculous questions that followed it.

“That pineapple story was so weird! And the questions were even weirder!” students called out, eager to debrief.

“I said the moose!”

“Oh, I said the hare!”

“No, it was the owl because he said the pineapple had no sleeves!”

“Yeah, it’s the owl because he figured out the moral!”

“But the moral is that pineapples don’t have sleeves. That’s not wise; that’s a joke!”

“It was the hare, because he was the only one who was right about the pineapple.”

We had a similar debate about how the animals were feeling when they ate the pineapple.

“There was really no evidence about how they felt. You basically had to guess!” one student said.

Then another student offered wisely, “See, you can’t ask this type of question on a test like this, because it’s an opinion question. You have to explain your answer for it to make sense. Which animal is the wisest? That depends on your opinion and your reasons. You can’t make it multiple choice.”

“I’m really glad you just said that,” I said. “I’ve been teaching you for the last two years that in literature there are multiple interpretations, and that in the study of literature we work on making compelling arguments for our interpretations with evidence and analysis. Questions like this really contradict what we’re about. I’m sorry you had to go through the pressure of trying to answer lousy questions ‘correctly.’ And for the record, I could not figure out the ‘correct’ answer on several questions throughout today’s test. Hopefully they will be discarded.”

We were told that this year, there would be a handful of “trial” questions on the test that would not count toward students’ scores but that were being tested out for validity and reliability to be used in subsequent years. For the first time, I found myself unable to identify the single correct answer on a handful of multiple choice questions. I reassured myself that these unnecessarily tricky questions were probably the trial questions.

On second thought, even if they don’t count, how is it okay for students to encounter unfair questions in such a high-pressure situation? First, the experience could easily shake a child’s confidence, which is a huge factor in success on a test. Second, perception of unfairness is the greatest detractor of motivation, according to Daniel Pink’s book about motivation, Drive.

So, on top of all of the reasons that standardized tests don’t provide accurate or reliable measures of student learning or teacher effectiveness, now NY State is allowing the big, expensive tests to be experimental? No, that’s not wise—it’s a joke.

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