linkathon part 4: the talking pineapple is a window into for-profit education

You've probably heard about the pineapple. Eighth-graders in New York State recently took a standardized test (Canadian translation: students in grade eight wrote an exam) where they were asked about a talking pineapple. The Daily News broke the story.
Students across the state are still scratching their heads over an absurd state test question about a talking pineapple.

The puzzler on the eighth-grade reading exam stumped even educators and has critics saying the tests, which are becoming more high stakes, are flawed.

“I think it’s weird that they put such a silly question on a state test. What were they thinking?” said Bruce Turley, 14, an eighth-grader at Lower Manhattan Community Middle School.

“I thought it was a little strange, but I just answered it as best as I could,” said his classmate Tyree Furman, 14. “You just have to give it your best answer. These are important tests.”

In the story, a take-off on Aesop’s fable about the tortoise and the hare, a talking pineapple challenges a hare to a race. The other animals wager on the immobile pineapple winning — and ponder whether it’s tricking them.

When the pineapple fails to move and the rabbit wins, the animals dine on the pineapple.

Students were asked two perplexing questions: why did the animals eat the talking fruit, and which animal was wisest?

Teachers, principals and parents contacted by The News said they weren’t sure what the answers were.
What you may not have heard is the story behind this test question. This wasn't just a faceplant and a joke on Twitter. It was some Wall Street trader's profit margin. Gail Collins explains.
Teachers, parents and education experts all chimed in. Nobody liked the talking pineapple questions. The Daily News, which broke the story, corralled “Jeopardy!” champion Ken Jennings, who concluded that “the plot details are so oddly chosen that the story seems to have been written during a peyote trip.”

The state education commissioner, John King, announced that the questions would not count in the official test scores. There was no comment from the test author. That would be Pearson, the world’s largest for-profit education business, which has a $32 million five-year contract to produce New York standardized tests.

Now — finally — we have tumbled into my central point. We have turned school testing into a huge corporate profit center, led by Pearson, for whom $32 million is actually pretty small potatoes. Pearson has a five-year testing contract with Texas that’s costing the state taxpayers nearly half-a-billion dollars.

This is the part of education reform nobody told you about. You heard about accountability, and choice, and innovation. But when No Child Left Behind was passed 11 years ago, do you recall anybody mentioning that it would provide monster profits for the private business sector?

Me neither.

It’s not just the tests. No Child Left Behind has created a system of public-funded charter schools, a growing number of which are run by for-profit companies. Some of them are completely online, with kids getting their lessons at home via computer. The academic results can be abysmal, but on the plus side — definitely no classroom crowding issues.

Pearson is just one part of the picture, albeit a part about the size of Mount Rushmore. Its lobbyists include the guy who served as the top White House liaison with Congress on drafting the No Child law. It has its own nonprofit foundation that sends state education commissioners on free trips overseas to contemplate school reform.

An American child could go to a public school run by Pearson, studying from books produced by Pearson, while his or her progress is evaluated by Pearson standardized tests. The only public participant in the show would be the taxpayer.

If all else fails, the kid could always drop out and try to get a diploma via the good old G.E.D. The General Educational Development test program used to be operated by the nonprofit American Council on Education, but last year the Council and Pearson announced that they were going into a partnership to redevelop the G.E.D. — a nationally used near-monopoly — as a profit-making enterprise.
Privatization doesn't improve service. It doesn't save money. It just moves public money - that is, our tax dollars - into somebody else's pocket. Rob Ford, we're looking at you.


James Redekop said...

The pineapple story is originally from a book by children's author Daniel Pinkwaterm, who's known for silly children's stories (it was an eggplant in the original story, not a pineapple).

The original story is on Pinkwater's blog.

laura k said...

Thanks, James! Good links.

juna said...

Ah yes, the pineapple was a source of much hilarity in 8th grade circles, but the Pearson story--not so funny.

Amy said...

Of course, it's all about money. What else could it be? Standardized testing has always been ridiculous as an easy way to "measure" something so that schools could easily compare students (and now teachers) for various purposes instead of taking the time to determine on some more time-consuming and fair basis what a student knows and understands. Standardized testing is so inherently unfair, especially today when there is a huge industry of prep courses that only those with ample resources can afford to take, thus perpetuating the disparity in test scores between those with advantaged backgrounds and those without.

I know that these tests measure something, have shown, for example, some correlation between success on the tests and success in school, but overall they favor those who test well and who can afford courses that help them test well.

laura k said...

some correlation between success on the tests and success in school

That makes sense, since the same conditions that would lead to success on tests would lead to school success - parental involvement, a non-disruptive home, a quiet place to study, proper nutrition, and so on.

As Amy says, it all skews towards the haves and away from the have-nots.

Amy said...

I also think that levels of anxiety affect test performance. My experience, both as a parent and as a teacher, has been that students always perform better when not anxious about performing. For some students, testing itself -- especially standardized testing---creates so much anxiety that they cannot think clearly enough to read and think. There's a reason they call it "multiple guess." Have the same student write a paper about the same topic, and you will see a much better representation of their ability to comprehend and apply the material. So students who tend to be more anxious are at a disadvantage in taking these tests, even if they take prep classes, eat and sleep well, and have lots of family support.

Sadly, even though I know this, much of my student evaluation is done by exam, although NOT multiple choice exams. It's just the practical reality of teaching large classes and having too little time to turn in grades.

laura k said...

Test anxiety is awful. Having to demonstrate your knowledge on the spot, within a time limit, is so difficult for so many people.