On Pearson and Pineapplegate: Kids & future teachers challenge critical tests

/ 9 May 2012 / jennifer

Beth Hawkins, MinnPost, May 8, 2012 –
pineapple, hare

Hare photo: CC/Flickr/chrischapman. Pineapple: CC/Flickr/jkivinen
The latest controversy in evaluation centers around a story about a race between a hare and a pineapple.

Every once in a while the storytelling gods pry open a crevice in what is otherwise a crucial but deadly dull policy debate and, like clowns from a toy car, out tumble examples of idiocy so dead-on Jon Stewart could not improve on them.

I refer, of course, to Pineapplegate, the growing education-sector tempest involving the giant standardized testing concern Pearson, the nation’s deepening love affair with testing in all its guises and a few students of all ages who are willing to say flat out that the emperor is wandering around starkers.

You really are going to want to click through today’s assemblage of links, so I’m going to sketch things in broad strokes.

Parts of education reform movement have been very good indeed for the publicly traded Pearson, which boasted a fourth-quarter 2011 profit margin of 26 percent. In addition to a growing list of acquisitions in some 70 countries, the corporation has a contract with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to store the results of the student data generated as a part of the Obama administration’s test-centric Race to the Top initiatives.

And it recently purchased Connections Education, the for-profit cyber-school operator that has been handed a license to print money in the form of a raft of legislation here and elsewhere mandating high schoolers take one or more digital courses to graduate. (Yes, Connections is the American Legislative Exchange Council member you’ve read about in this space in recent weeks.)

A couple of weeks ago a number of eighth-graders in New York took exception to a test question in which they were asked to decide whether the animals in “The Hare and the Pineapple,” a Daniel Pinkwater parody of the classic fable involving a tortoise and a hare, ate a pineapple that challenged the hare to a race because they were annoyed or hungry.

As reported by the New York Times:

“Daniel Pinkwater, a popular children’s book author who wrote the original version of the passage, which was doctored for the test, said that the test-makers had turned a nonsensical story into a nonsensical question for what he believed was a nonsensical test, but acknowledged that he was tickled to death by the children’s reaction.

“The crux of the passage is that the pineapple challenges the hare to a race, and the other animals are convinced the pineapple must have a trick up its sleeve and will win. When the pineapple stands still, the animals eat it. The moral of the story: ‘Pineapples don’t have sleeves.’”

Stupid, right? Well, actually worse. As one of the Washington Post’s education bloggers noted, kids — and the teachers and principals who are now being evaluated on the basis of their test scores — have a lot riding on the fact that a farcical question can have a right answer:

“How could such an item, for which many adults struggled to choose a logical answer, be used to make incredibly high-stakes judgments about students, teachers and schools? At the end of the day, the students’ responses to questions about this story will be used to judge the relative merits of different schools, teachers, and principals.”

And now teacher candidates, apparently. Sixty-seven potential middle- and high-school teachers at the University of Massachusetts’ Amherst campus are refusing to take part in the development of a new national licensing test being developed by Pearson in conjunction with Stanford University.

Again, via the New York Times:

“They have refused to send Pearson two 10-minute videos of themselves teaching, as well as a 40-page take-home test, requirements of an assessment that will soon be necessary for licensure in several states.”

Adding insult to injury, they will be judged by work-at-home scorers who are sometimes paid $75 per evaluation. The plucky UMass kids seem to think their professors and the teachers observing them on the job for six months in actual classrooms have a better idea whether they are qualified to teach.

They may be qualified to teach, but are they cut out for public education circa 2012?