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Filler: Don't bet on the pineapple

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It turns out that in the contest between the pineapple and the hare, the only winners are those who argue standardized testing has gotten out of hand.

A short story called "The Hare and the Pineapple" became the object of controversy in New York last week after it was used on a reading comprehension test for eighth-graders. Daniel Pinkwater, a National Public Radio commentator who also writes children's literature, wrote the tale (or did he?). It's about a pineapple who challenges a hare to a footrace, the reactions of the other forest creatures, the race and its aftermath. It even has a moral -- if "pineapples don't have sleeves" is a moral.

After the hare accepts the pineapple's challenge, the other animals decide the pineapple must have a trick up its sleeve, else it wouldn't propose the contest. So the moose, crow and owl root for the pineapple, because they want to back a winner. (Whether acorns were wagered through a shady ferret isn't clear.) The race starts, the hare runs, the pineapple doesn't, the hare wins. Because pineapples can't run and, yup, they don't have sleeves up which to hide dastardly plans. So the animals eat the pineapple.

There were six questions in the reading test. The story contains the information needed to solve the four fairly straightforward ones. But the other two can't be answered based on the text.

The first is, "What would have happened had the animals decided to cheer for the hare?" Asking middle-schoolers to predict what will happen if talking animals decide to root for a cocky rabbit in a race against a pineapple is a tall order. That's like asking what would have happened in the "Star Wars" saga if Princess Leia were really fat, or Darth Vader were actually Luke's adoptive father. They're fascinating queries, but I don't think there's a right answer.

The other test question that could be answered with certainty only by someone on LSD (not really fair to the rest of the middle-schoolers, now is it?) is "The animals ate the pineapple most likely because they were A) hungry, B) excited, C) annoyed or D) amused."

I need more information. Does the forest have 10 races a day, with $2 daily doubles, or is it an occasional thing? Were snacks available? Do moose like pineapple? And the question these eighth-graders were undoubtedly asking themselves, "WHAT THE @#$%, MAN?"

Here's the best part: Pinkwater says he's never seen this story. He sold the rights to a tale called "The Hare and the Pineapple" for a few hundred bucks, and the testing company, Pearson, took it, made up a different, unintelligible story and affixed his name to it. So it's a dumb tale and it's reverse plagiarism, or forgery, or . . . something.

The state Education Department sent out a justification-riddled email to journalists saying that questions on pineapple-hare racing won't be counted on test results. A lot of reporters who received that message probably thought, as I did, "what's this all about?" It's about the incompetence of folks at the state Education Department, which, the release says, "review and analyze all questions on every assessment we administer."

This story and questions had already been used and declared ridiculous in other states. Now in New York, the controversy is empowering those who claim neither teachers nor students can be judged, even in part, by the results of standardized tests. That isn't true, but the folks who have the most invested in proving it isn't true -- the ones at the state Education Department -- are the ones who let the test slip by and the argument gain steam.

The moral? When using a test to judge people, be sure it is superb, not just to avoid controversy, but because it's the right thing to do. It's no "pineapples don't have sleeves," but it will do in a crunch.

Lane Filler is a member of the Newsday editorial board.


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