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Reading Comprehension...

Every once in a while, someone brings something to my attention that just makes me sad inside on pretty much every education-related and reading-related level possible. Something like this: the New York State exam test-writers yoinked a surreal fable out of a longer work by a children's author, boiled it down, and then added some multiple choice questions that... tended toward the surreal.

Here's the article, with the actual question reprinted at the end.

So, obviously everyone is up-in-arms over this "stupid" question. Why is it stupid? "Because pineapples don't talk!" "Because there is no right answer!" Or, most probably, "because I don't understand!" Everyone is freaking out because "kids' futures depend on this!" and whatnot, but I think the bigger problem here is that none of the adults in this situation seem to be worrying about the fact that they can't answer these questions. Because... you can. Just because it's a test for 8th-graders doesn't mean the answers are going to be obvious to an adult. There's still some thinking required, and I think that's the problem. We as a people do tend to get frustrated easily by things that don't immediately fit our ideas (which is the point of surrealism, which I think I was just beginning to understand and appreciate in 8th grade).

I'm not going to say the questions are good. In fact, the "Why did the animals eat the pineapple?" question might be kind of difficult for an 8th grader. This is the one question where none of the options are explicitly mentioned in the excerpt. Instead, you have to infer. ("Most likely..." being the testy-word clue there.) So, no one mentions being hungry, no has reason to be amused or excited... but all the animals do have a reason to be annoyed. So the "most likely" reason for eating the pineapple would be annoyance.** Totally not impossible by process-of-elimination, which is pretty much test-taking 101. Though a point could be made for "hunger" since it's been a few hours in the story and hunger is generally why you eat something, fables are full of animals who eat things vengefully. (Honestly, I'd throw this particular question out on those grounds.)

And actually, the thing that makes me saddest is that this isn't the question most people are bothered by. People are bothered by the "Which animal was wisest?" question. This says many, many heart-breaking things to me about people never learning to think of the internal reality of a story as something independent of your personal reality. Which is part of the point of fables. Heck, it's the point of fiction. So, everyone is whining that none of the animals are wise (by our standards) when the answer to the question is right in the story. Just because "Pineapples don't have any sleeves" isn't traditional wisdom doesn't mean it's not wisdom in the context of the story. You can even come at this two different ways. 1) Take the roundabout way and ask yourself "Which animal wasn't wrong?" There are only two: the hare and the owl. But the hare doesn't impart any "wisdom." Nothing it says can be expanded out into a larger truth, just truth directed at the individual pineapple. Which leaves the owl. QED. Or, more directly, there's approach 2) ask "Which animal speaks the moral of the story verbatim?" This relies on knowing that the moral of the story is the wisdom the story is meant to impart, but that's elementary school information.**

Actually, by far the worst-best question is probably "What would have happened if the animals had decided to cheer for the hare?" I'd wager this one is probably easier for an 8th grader, since they're probably not as steeped in irony as most adults are. I'll admit to wanting to answer "The hare would've just sat there" or "The pineapple would have won the race". But as long as you keep in mind that you don't have the information you need to infer either of those scenarios, other than years of encountering bitter irony and never succeeding where you thought you would surely win, you can pretty safely figure out that the answer is "They would have been happy to have cheered for a winner." After all, we were already told that's why they cheered for the pineapple: "So the animals, wanting to back a winner, all cheered for the pineapple."**

In conclusion, come on, adults of the world! Kids can answer these! Expect more of them! (And yourselves.) Also maybe instead of teaching to tests (because this test was written to prevent that sort of thing) we should be teaching kids how to think and how to take tests. And stop tying teachers' contracts to standardized test scores, and realize that there are always going to be questions that some people don't understand, or that are written poorly, or that some people get wrong, and that learning is the goal and that the last thing we should do is strip out more-difficult questions just to make ourselves feel better about our educational standards.

Also, I think I am going to bring this test with me to every DI event and prove to the world that 8th graders--and younger kids--can answer these questions with a bit of thought. (Though I'll forgive all of the New York 8th graders who were confused by this, because I can't remember ever encountering surrealism on a state exam and probably would've spent a good portion of my time wondering about the test-writer's intent and if I was supposed to pretend the story could be taken seriously.)

** If, however, it turns out I'm wrong on any of these answers then obviously the test is stupid.


( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
22nd Apr, 2012 19:08 (UTC)
Iiiiiiiii think it's a really stupid freaking story and a really freaking stupid set of test questions, but... yeah I came to the same conclusions you did. The story-and-questions set was stupid, baffling, and poorly written, but not actually difficult. Simple logic.
22nd Apr, 2012 19:31 (UTC)
Yeah, I'm not going to say the questions themselves weren't really poorly written. (Also the author of the original story the pieces was excerpted from appears to always write like that, even when complaining about how stupid the excerpt sounds, so...)

But the more I think about it, the more I think that seemingly-nonsensical, self-contained pieces of fiction might actually be really useful for the sort of things standardized reading comprehension tests are supposed to test for. That way you can break away from people relying on outside knowledge to bluster through, and can focus on their understanding of the particular details and mechanics within the story alone. In order for that to be effective, though, it would have to be an up-front feature of the test rather than something that comes out of nowhere. I kind of fear that what we're teaching in terms of reading comprehension doesn't rely much on what's going on in the story itself but what you (or, more specifically, your teacher) think[s] it's supposed to be doing.
23rd Apr, 2012 02:06 (UTC)
But the more I think about it, the more I think that seemingly-nonsensical, self-contained pieces of fiction might actually be really useful for the sort of things standardized reading comprehension tests are supposed to test for.

I agree. Though (in my opinion) this test was executed poorly, I think the idea is sound.

More than anything, I am sick to death of standardized testing being the be-all and end-all of education. I have Thoughts about what's wrong with our education system, but I don't have anything but anecdotal evidence and my own personal opinion to back it up. Suffice to say: we're not doing a good job of teaching children to think, and we're not instilling in them a sense of personal agency in their education.
23rd Apr, 2012 02:25 (UTC)
I have to say, I'm pretty sure what I'm imagining as the ideal scenario for this type of excerpt/question set-up is not at all what the test-writers had in mind (I think they just thought the story was funny and would add some levity to the test, then ran into trouble coming up with questions about it. I mean... "Why did they eat the pineapple?" Seriously?) I just wish everyone was discussing something closer to that problem (and the problem of standardized tests at large pretty much not providing any useful information) instead of complaining about how the questions can't be answered.

I'm in the same boat... or rather, I think the boat I'm in is probably less seaworthy than yours. I can sense that something really needs to be fixed, but all I have are my own crackpot education ideas backed up by about 20 hours total per year working with kids. It's just really easy to get my lit-degree hackles up when people complain about reading comprehension. (-;
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )