Yesterday my social networks exploded with chatter about the story that a crazy passage about a talking pineapple had appeared on a New York state reading exam for eighth-graders. Words like "weird," "absurd," and "crap" flew around. One friend-of-a-friend averred, "I'm not sure there's any such thing as a good reading-comprehension question."

As it happens, I made a sizeable chunk of my income in the mid-'00s as the lead developer of the SAT reading program for a major test prep company. I have written hundreds of these things. And my take on all this has proven to be somewhat different from most that I've encountered.

The first article I saw about this only presented a handful of lines from the offending passage, and what I saw reminded me of the infamous "Vortex of Itchy Doom" story that I fought to have removed from our SES materials back in 2002-03. The company had received a contract to send tutors into schools, have them sit down with 11th-graders who had failed their (extremely simple) high school exit exams three times already, and prepare them to retake the tests for a fourth and, if necessary, fifth time. These were kids who were on the verge of dropping out and would rather have been anywhere but in our supplementary classes. The solution our developers hit on: fill the practice materials with wacky "humor" of the sort delighted in by extremely nerdy ten-year-olds! Surely that would make these kids love coming to class and wouldn't confirm their suspicion that school is a stupid waste of time!

But then I ran across a link to the full story as it appeared in the exam. Since it's offered for public perusal on a government web site and has appeared in its entirety in newspaper articles, I assume it's okay for me to reproduce it here:

"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.

The questions that attracted the most attention were these:

7. The animals ate the pineapple most likely because they were
(A) hungry
(B) excited
(C) annoyed
(D) amused
8. Which animal spoke the wisest words?
(A) The hare
(B) The moose
(C) The crow
(D) The owl

Among the general public, the reaction I saw boiled down to "What a stupid passage! How can something like that be on a test? Look, even Daniel Pinkwater, who wrote the story on which the pineapple passage is based, says the new version is 'nonsense on top of nonsense'!" Among my former colleagues in the test prep industry, the reaction was also negative, but quite a bit different. Their response was that these questions were invalid — i.e., they do not meet the criteria that a reading comprehension question on a standardized test must meet.

I am probably undermining my potential tutoring income by giving away my material here, but the way I have introduced standardized test reading comp to my students goes like this. Companies such as ETS that produce standardized tests employ two types of people: psychologists and lawyers. The psychologists develop questions that, they contend, measure certain mental skills. The lawyers make sure the answers to those questions can hold up in court against litigious parents. A lawyer for one of these companies can't very well say, "The plaintiff argues that the answer to #29 is (D). We contend that it's (C). Your honor — doesn't (C) just feel right to you? Don't you just kinda look at it and say, 'Yeah, gotta be (C)'?" That wouldn't fly. So the answer pretty much has to be a paraphrase of something that's right there in the passage. The lawyer needs to be able to point at the key phrase and say, "Your honor, any reasonable person who read and understood line 52 would agree that the answer is (C)." Here's the sort of thing I'm talking about:

Crows and their relatives reproduce at roughly the same stringent rate though periods of bounty or austerity, maintaining levels of population that are modest but consistent, and which can be supported throughout any foreseeable hard times. One consequence of such modesty of demographic ambition is to leave them with excess time, and energy, not desperately required for survival. Take my word for it: Crows are bored. And so there arise, as recorded in the case file, these certain … no, symptoms is too strong. Call them, rather, patterns of gratuitous behavior. They show the most complex play known in birds.

1. According to the passage, how would the birth rate in a crow population be affected if food became easier for the crows to find?
(A) It would increase, because the crows could support more offspring.
(B) It would decrease, because the crows would want to keep the food for themselves.
(C) It would increase and then decrease, as the crows would reproduce too much, deplete the food source, and face starvation.
(D) It would remain fairly stable.

The answer is (D). No matter how much you might want to argue for one of the other answers based on your pre-existing knowledge of ecology, the passage says, "Crows and their relatives reproduce at roughly the same stringent rate though periods of bounty or austerity." If "food became easier for the crows to find," that equates to a "period of bounty"; the passage says that during such a period, crows would "reproduce at roughly the same stringent rate." You cannot reasonably argue that the answer is anything other than (D), based on the passage.

My friends from the test prep world objected that the pineapple questions don't work this way. Where is the phrase you can point to that sums up why the animals ate the pineapple? Where is the phrase you can point to that declares which animal is the wisest? On the SAT or ACT, for instance, the passage would say that one of the animals was "renowned for its sagacity," and you could point to that and say, there, based on this evidence from the passage, we know that this animal is the wisest. To say that the owl must be the wisest because folklore tells us that owls are wise? That's outside knowledge! And cultural bias to boot! To say that the owl must be the wisest because the moral repeats what the owl said? Circumstantial evidence! The owl was probably just joking! And who says the "moral" is wise, anyway?

To my mind, this is a problem. 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. A reading comp test that denies the importance of context isn't a test of whether students understand what they read. It's a test of whether they can parse.

Back when I was an active tutor, I used to talk about this from time to time on the teachers' forum one of my colleagues set up. Here's an example from back in 2008. I'd spent the afternoon working with a student on a reading comp passage that contrasted Harriet Jacobs with Frederick Douglass, arguing that gender was a dominant factor in the types of antislavery appeals each was able to make. It was a perfect example of what I've been talking about: if you don't know anything about traditional American gender roles, you may still be able to get some questions right through test-prep tricks, but you won't actually understand what you're reading.

One sentence early on said: "Frederick Douglass, for instance, firmly identified himself with the triumph of manliness and individualism that slavery suppressed." When I read that, my immediate thought was, "Yeah, it's hard to argue that a man's home is his castle when he's living in a shack in the back of a plantation." The reason I was able to immediately rephrase the point in my own terms is that I was already familiar with the ideology of masculine independence. I asked my student whether she had ever heard the phrase "a man's home is his castle," and she shrugged; I asked whether it meant anything to her and she suggested that maybe it had to do with people wanting big houses. It was the same story when we moved on to Jacobs and the way that she had to couch her arguments in the language of domesticity. I asked my student whether she'd ever heard the phrase "a woman's place is in the home," and she wasn't sure. She had gathered that antebellum women didn't have the same rights as men, but this just led her to choose trap answers suggesting that Jacobs was fighting for women's rights. In fact, the passage made almost the opposite claim: that because the suffragette movement lay far in the future, Jacobs had had to base her appeals on the notion that slavery was keeping her from fulfilling her proper role as the angel of the house. Again, this made sense to me because I was already familiar with "the cult of true womanhood." My student wasn't. When the passage said flat-out that in in Jacobs's time, even women believed in "natural differences" between the sexes, the words didn't register for my student, because it had never occurred to her that anyone might accept a position of inferiority. In a sense, this is wonderfully cheering, but for the purposes at hand, it was a big problem. Even if you're a strong reader, if you don't know anything about pre-feminist America, you're going to go into this passage with all the wrong assumptions, and thus fail to understand it. And even if the questions are ostensibly written not to penalize a lack of outside knowledge, if you really don't understand the passage at all, you will likely end up bombing the section.

Which brings me back to the pineapple passage. It is, very obviously, a commentary on the fable of the tortoise and the hare. If you don't get that, you are pretty much out of luck here. Note that the test makers changed Pinkwater's "rabbit" to "hare," in order to make it even clearer that the fable of the tortoise and the hare is our starting point, and then had to explain what a hare is. (My guess is that they changed "eggplant" to "pineapple" because "eggplant" is Sopranos slang for a black person.) Even with all the alterations — I would even say because of some of the alterations — it's a great story! People on the social networks may call it nonsense, and Pinkwater may slip into humble-author mode and call it nonsense, but it is clearly not nonsense at all. It's a fable about the danger of overthinking things. Stories like the original fable of the tortoise and the hare condition us to think that every story will have a twist ending, and that when characters say or do something that seems stupid, it will turn out to be a clever ruse. (I've spent the last five years writing screenplays full of "Oh no, the hero has been captured! Ha ha, he wanted to be captured! It was all a clever ruse!" It's part of the formula.) But in the vast majority of cases, the passage is arguing, when people say or do something that seems stupid, it's because they're stupid. Don't go all Wallace Shawn and think everyone is playing 11-dimensional chess all the time. Don't try to figure out what trick the pineapple has up its sleeve. Pineapples don't have sleeves.

As to the answers to the questions: The animals clearly ate the pineapple because they had overthought things, wound up looking like idiots in doing so, felt humiliated, and in typical fashion turned those negative feelings outward upon a convenient scapegoat — in this case, the pineapple that was the first mover in the chain of events leading to their humiliation. I know this not because it's a paraphrase of a clause in the passage that I can point at, but because I recognize a commentary on human nature when I see one. This may not be the sort of argument that would satisfy an ETS lawyer, but I would submit that the ability to intuitively pick up subtext is a big part of what constitutes being good at reading literature. Similarly, the wisdom question seems pretty straightforward to me. The owl has the wisest line: "pineapples don't have sleeves." I say that "pineapples don't have sleeves" is a wise thing to say not because it's explicitly identified as the moral, but because, in context, it makes the wisdom-recognition centers of my brain light up, the same way they do when I encounter wise passages in other works of literature.

So I don't really have an issue with the passage or the questions. They don't work as traditional standardized test items, but if you ask me, that's not much of a criticism. I would say that the real problem, and what is really responsible for this kerfuffle, is the whole social apparatus surrounding these poor unloved test items. See, I can say what I think the answers are. I can, on the basis of a dialogue with a student, evaluate that student's skill at comprehending this story. Based on my résumé, you might put some stock in my opinion. Or you might not! I'm just some schmuck! I speak only with whatever authority my reputation provides. This test, by contrast, is supposed to speak for the State of New York. If you live in New York, and you don't agree with the official answers, or you think the questions are stupid, or you think that no amount of bubble-filling can substitute for the in-person, expert opinion of a teacher, you may well be angry that this test is being given in your name. Especially when the stakes are your child's academic record and the future earning power that is in part pegged to it. But that's the fault of our culture for its warped sense of what constitutes education and what role it should play in our society. It's not the fault of the testing company. The testing company did its job, and compared to a lot of other efforts I've seen, did it pretty well.

comment on
comment on
comment on
return to the
Calendar page