What The Talking Pineapple Says About Information Literacy

Photo: annaestasyeah (Flickr CC)

The New York State educational community has been all abuzz about a series of questions on the recent state ELA exam for 8th graders. The questions are based on a rather bizarre story featuring a race between a hare and a pineapple, which is based on a whimsical story by author Daniel Pinkwater, which itself is loosely based on the classic Aesop fable “The Tortoise and the Hare”.

Talking Pineapple Question On State Exam Stumps…Everyone! (New York Daily News)

The New York Times reports that in response to complaints about the passage and the questions, Education Commissioner John B. King, Jr. has determined the questions were “ambiguous” and will not be counted against students.

State Scraps ‘Pineapple’ Test Questions (New York Times)

The passage on which the questions were based was adapted from (and credited to) a story by Daniel Pinkwater, who says “it’s hilarious on the face of it that anybody creating a test would use a passage of mine, because I’m an advocate of nonsense.”

Daniel Pinkwater on Pineapple Exam: ‘Nonsense on Top of Nonsense’ (Wall Street Journal).

Pinkwater has received many questions on the passage, and not for the first time. His story has been used on several other state exams (in other states) in the past.

“The story ‘The Pineapple and the Hare’ was on our New York State English Language Arts Exam today. I was researching online, and I noticed it’s been used in multiple other states in years in the past. Do you have any idea why such a funny story is so often included, along with boring poems and non-fiction excerpts, in standardized testing?” — Ben (from the P-Zone Forum)

A blog dedicated to Pinkwater’s works has this response:

“OK, here is the deal. There are these companies that make up tests and various reading materials, and sell them to state departments of education for vast sums of money. One of the things they do is purchase rights from authors to use excerpts from books. For these they pay the authors non-vast sums of money. Then they edit the passages according to….I have no idea what perceived requirements.”

This got me thinking about the purpose of the tests in the first place, which got me thinking about the Common Core (go with me on this):

  • Student takes test which includes a reading passage, with questions that have been deemed “ambiguous”.
  • Student notices the passage is credited to Daniel Pinkwater and makes a mental note of it.
  • Student, concerned about the passage, decides to contact Daniel Pinkwater to try to get some answers.
  • Using research and information literacy skills, student locates a website that includes a forum for discussion, finds the contact information, and writes a carefully constructed query to the author.
  • Student waits patiently for a response.

So how is this related to the Common Core? Well, ELA Writing Standard 6 for Grade 8 tells us:

“[Students will] use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing and present the relationships between information and ideas efficiently as well as to interact and collaborate with others.”

So who really passed the test? The students who took the time to apply research skills to construct meaningful questions and identify the source that would produce the most relevant answer (in this case, the author himself).

And that’s what information literacy is all about, Charlie Brown.


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