First it came to me as a tweet, that a bizarre story with unanswerable context questions appeared on a New York State exam. The news story, which gave a summary of the story on the test, concerned a retelling of the fable of the Tortoise and the Hare, only with a Pineapple in the place of the tortoise. The Pineapple, who can talk but is immobile, naturally loses the race but is eaten by the other animals. The questions that followed, supplied by the news story made no sense. Even teachers administering the exam couldn’t decisively say which were the correct answers.
And as teachers were going to be assessed on the ability of their students to do well on this test it seemed a travesty.
Another tweet alerted me to the fact that the story was written by noted children’s author Daniel Pinkwater. A different story came into focus with just that information, because I’ve read enough Pinkwater to know that he prizes nonsense and zen equally in his stories. But I was still confused. How did a nonsense story end up on a test to measure reading comprehension? It sounded like another one of those areas where a test seemed more designed to promote failure than measure success. I poked around and found both an interview with Pinkwater along with a copy of the actual story as it appeared on the test.
Pinkwater himself finds the entire incident absurd and makes his pointed jabs at the testing industry clear. What struck me was the story of “The Hare and the Pineapple” (originally “The Hare and the Eggplant”) was taken out of context in such a way that, as a stand-alone piece, it seems practically designed to cause test taker anxiety. The fable in the book is told by an elderly man who is either going through early stages of dementia or at least pretending to be, so within that context the “meaning” of the story is, essentially, there is no meaning to the story. In reading the story as it appeared on the test, and looking at the questions, it becomes clear that the controversy as reported in the news was carefully written to highlight the absurdity of the test. There is one question I found that asks for a value or contextual judgment (“who was wisest”) but in the end it may simply have been that an absurd story in the middle of a “serious” test caused some eighth graders undue anxiety.
Still, the problem of context bothers me. When you take something with a very specific purpose in one text and remove it from its surrounding purpose, it opens up the possibility of misuse and misunderstanding.
In Paul Zindel’s YA novel The Pigman there is a story told by the old man as a “mystery” though he suggests that the story will reveal what kind of a person you are. If I’m not mistaken the story is an adaptation of a version playwright Edward Albee based on a Greek tale.
There is a river with a bridge over it, and a WIFE and her HUSBAND live in a house on one side. The WIFE has a LOVER who lives on the other side of the river, and the only way to get from one side of the river to the other is to walk across the bridge or to ask the BOATMAN to take you.
One day the HUSBAND tells his WIFE that he has to be gone all night to handle some business in a faraway town. The WIFE pleads with him to take her with him because she knows if she doesn’t, she will be unfaithful to him. The HUSBAND absolutely refuses to take her because she will only be in the way of his important business.
So the HUSBAND goes alone. When he is gone, the WIFE goes over to the bridge and stays with her LOVER. The night passes, and dawn is almost up when the WIFE leaves because she must get back to her own home before her HUSBAND returns. She starts to cross the bridge but sees an ASSASSIN waiting for her on the other side, and she knows if she tries to cross, he will murder her. In terror, she runs up the side of the river and asks the BOATMAN to take her across the river, but he wants fifty cents. She has no money, so he refuses to take her.
The WIFE runs back to the LOVER’s house and explains to him what the predicament is and asks him for fifty cents to pay the BOATMAN. The LOVER refuses, telling her it’s her own fault for getting into the situation. As dawn comes up, the WIFE is nearly out of her mind and dashes across the bridge. When she comes face to face with the ASSASSIN, he takes a large knife and stabs her until she is dead.
Now, on a piece of paper (or in your head), list the names of the characters in the order in which you think they were most responsible for the WIFE’s death. Just list WIFE, HUSBAND, LOVER, BOATMAN, and ASSASSIN in the order you think they are the most guilty.
The order of your answer supposedly reveals how much you value LOVE, SEX, FUN, MONEY, and MAGIC with each corresponding to the characters in the story and their behavior. And within the story there is a reason for The Pigman to be telling it, but let’s take the story on its own and instead of making an ordered list of who we think is most guilty, lets instead ask some contextual inference questions.
Based on the story above, which person is most likely to have hired the ASSASSIN?
a. the BOATMAN
b. the LOVER
c. the HUSBAND
d. the WIFE
Who does the WIFE fear the most in story?
a. the ASSASSIN
b. the HUSBAND
d. the BOATMAN
What could the WIFE have done differently to avoid being killed?
a. Swim across the river.
b. Offered the BOATMAN double his fee for helping her.
c. Kill the ASSASSIN before he could kill her.
d. Found another way across the river.
The first question underscores a crucial bit of information that isn’t expressly given in the story, because we all know that an Assassin never kills for free. In the second question the Wife has reason to fear all of the people named in the answers, but which does she fear the most based on her behavior? The third question merely asks that the test taker choose what to their thinking is the best solution. These questions are sometimes kept out of the scoring and sometimes used to gather some other particular metrics requested by the test administrators or the company that produced the tests themselves. But as you can see, it’s easy to ask the questions, but much harder defending definitive answers when the story itself has another purpose within the larger context.
Now comes the blame game. Judging from all the news and hoopla regarding “The Hare and the Pineapple,” who do you think is the most at fault?
a. The news media for reporting the story.
b. The schools who administer tests with questions even their own teachers cannot answer.
c. The test preparers who make millions off selling tests to school districts even though the tests themselves may not provide the quantitative information they claim to possess.
d. The public, who believe that standardized testing is the best way to measure everything from individual knowledge to the ability of a school and its educators to provide quality education.
When you are done, put down your pencils, wait quietly and do not turn the page until you are told to do so.
(By the way, if you want to provide your answers to The Pigman’s riddle below I will email you what the results mean.)