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

The latest controversy in evaluation centers around who would win 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?

Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 05/08/2012 - 11:50 am.

    Maybe

    “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.”

    Maybe. Let’s see their evaluation system and the criteria their professors and teacher evaluators use to make that determination. For all we know their evaluation criteria is worthless. I’m sure Pearson and Stanford will be glad to share their evaluation criteria.

  2. Submitted by John Hakes on 05/08/2012 - 12:32 pm.

    Standardized Test Content Can Be “For Better or For Worse”

    This piece introduces an important topic unlikely to see the light of day at any school board meeting or legislative hearing– the composition of test questions, especially standardized ones since they are administered in such high volume, can influence students for the values, messages & statements they contain.

    To add to the list of questionable test items begun by this article, I was once puzzled (while working as a student data manager at a North Carolina middle school during the 1990s) by an exam selection that featured a teacher going to the top floor of a building to throw a computer out the window after growing frustrated with it, for the secondary purpose of scientific examination when it hit the ground. Aside from the obvious disrespect for property the passage condoned for test takers, a discerning reader could also read an anti-technology sentiment into the example.

    On the flip side, many exams also sport sterling examples of reading prompts. For instance, one currently part of the sixth-grade, MCA testing series in Minnesota is a passage about explorer Marco Polo– which effortlessly weaves in lessons about the rigors of 13th century adventuring & international diplomacy with an analysis of fact or fiction, due to people’s misbelief that Polo actually encountered a civilization (China) that was using paper and ink for communication & new forms of money. This passage was also instructive in additional ways.

    Through occasional reviews of grades 3-8 MCA exam content, I have also generally found them to be both academically and practically useful, although the GRAD written examination currently administered in the 9th grade is far from being the “college and career ready” assessment it should be.

    The primary inference of this Hawkins piece should be well-taken, though: any state’s education policy makers ought to watch out for who and from where a given examination’s content is developed, and also attend to the methodologies a particular assessor uses for determining whether students are making the grade. While this might require working through a few reactionary cries of “government censorship,” the character-quotient of students is too important to be contracted out to private firms who place profit above the development of students who take these exams.

  3. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 05/08/2012 - 02:49 pm.

    Wait

    Kids are being tested with at least one question that is, essentially, the equivalent of a knock-knock joke by a 5-year-old? And they’re expected to know the answer? That’s not funny.

  4. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 05/08/2012 - 07:53 pm.

    Pineapplegate

    I’d submit, Rachel, that it’s not only not funny, but we should think further about for whom it isn’t funny.

    The test maker? They’ve taken the money, and run as far and as fast as they can to escape any responsibility whatsoever for the drivel they’re passing off as actual “measurement” of important educational outcomes. John Hakes is right on the mark about the skepticism that’s both deserved and necessary to state officials who purport to be choosing “objective” testing materials and evaluation methodologies.

    The test taker? Think again. What are the consequences to the kids who can’t, or won’t bother, to figure out a correct answer? Even in high school, where a dismal performance on the SAT or the ACT might well mean that a particular student isn’t going to be admitted to the Ivy League school of her choice, it absolutely does NOT mean that she won’t be able to go to college. Higher education has itself become big business, with many a campus happy to take the tuition money of a family whose newly-launched freshman is an academic slug interested mostly in avoiding a lifetime of burger-flipping.

    The person least likely to be laughing in this scenario is the teacher, who had no influence on how the test was made, how the results are evaluated, what conclusions are drawn from that evaluation, nor the motivation of the children who took the test.

    What we’re witnessing, I’d argue, is an opening round in the next corporate takeover. Medicine, which used to be a social service, is now one of the biggest businesses in the country, with profits commensurate with that state. Stephen Hemsley was paid $100 million as CEO of UnitedHealth last year, and he delivered exactly zero health care. The purpose of UnitedHealth is not to provide health care. It’s to extract premium payments from individuals, employers, and other groups in exchange for the promise of health care being delivered by others, who are the actual providers. UnitedHealth exists to make money, not provide health care. It has been quite successful in regard to the former.

    If I live long enough, I won’t be surprised to see something similar happen to public education, though I’ve no idea what form it’s likely to take. A corporate takeover of education will put the final nail into the coffin of a free and open society with a significant component of social and economic mobility. Instead, we’ll have the corporate world, based as it is on the Feudal, with lords, vassals, serfs, etc., and handsome profits – profits far more than handsome, actually – for a relative few, while most find themselves, once again, left out in the cold.

    And in that scenario, it will STILL be the teachers who are taking the flak. Corporations don’t want well-educated citizens. Corporations want well-trained workers and malleable consumers.

  5. Submitted by Andrew Truman on 05/08/2012 - 09:29 pm.

    Test Items

    What a great topic. We need to be more critical about what measures we use for these high-stakes tests. As a teachers, MDE requires us to sign a non-disclosure before administering the test. We are even threatened with getting our licenses revoked for looking at the content of the test or sending out more than one student at a time to the bathroom. It feels awful.

    The worst part about the tests is how we can’t even get an item analysis to see which items students got correct or incorrect. We get a number, but that tells us nothing more than who the “smart” kids are and who the “non-proficient” kids are. It’s worthless for helping kids learn.

    The test is shrouded in secrecy and people need to start demanding accountability on this end, instead of putting everything on the teacher. Thank you Beth!

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