Drop the Pineapple and nobody gets hurt: “Pencils Down” and the modern American culture of testing

Pencils Down is the latest release from Milwaukee-area eduction reform group Rethinking Schools.

Rethinking Schools, the Milwaukee-based education reform outfit that encourages improvements in America’s schools through pursuit of social justice, has a new book out. Pencils Down is an anthology of short texts about tests, about how, when, and why American students get tested and the effects of that overwhelming fact of American educational life.

I began reading Pencils Down a couple of weeks ago, while my students were–you guessed it–testing. On hall duty during my school’s administration of the ACT (all Milwaukee juniors take that test), I had Pencils Down and an empty hallway for company. The book, thankfully, was a willing partner in conversation.

That’s what it is–a conversation. Between educators and their students, between academics and policy makers, between parents and schools. A whole country’s worth of voices rising in unison to say, enough.

Note: Rethinking Schools is hosting a book-launch party this Friday, May 11, from 5-7 PM at the Riverwest Public House, with one of the editors and several contributors in attendance and books for sale at a discount.

As I was reading, the story was also breaking of “The Pineapple and the Hare”–you probably read about it yourself. Nothing could be more emblematic of what is wrong with the culture of testing in America than this bizarre episode and why we need to be saying enough.

Briefly, the Pineapple and the Hare story appeared this spring on New York’s state exams, exams purchased from the testing company Pearson. (Wisconsin buys its tests from CTB-McGraw Hill.) In the story, a Pineapple challenges a hare to a race, and, predictably loses. You can read the whole story here (pdf), and see some of the multiple-choice questions students were then asked about it.

I said the pineapple was a perfect emblem for the problem of testing, and it is: the story is dumb, uninteresting, and confusing; the questions are also dumb, requiring not just a complete lack of creative or critical thinking but also apparently the ability to predict what is going through the test-makers’ minds rather than engage the story. One question, for example, asked which of the other animals in the story “spoke the wisest words”; the correct answer is the character who parroted the nonsensical “moral” of the story, rather than one of the characters who pointed out how nonsensical the story is.

And it gets worse. The story, it turns out, was not the brainchild of Pearson employees, people you might imagine stuffed in a windowless basement somewhere carefully crafting standardized tests. Rather, it is a butchering of a passage written by beloved children’s author Daniel Pinkwater–a story that, in context, was told by a man pretending to be crazy, in other words, it was never supposed to be read as something to make sense of, or something with an applicable “moral.” What was written as a funny and fleeting page of a much longer novel is now deadly serious for the 8th-graders who may have been denied promotion to high school because of that test.

This is what Pencils Down is about. It is about how the for-profit testing industry, through its partners in state and federal politics, has made testing unavoidably ubiquitous, and how schools, in response, are being gutted of all life, pleasure, and authenticity of learning.

Edited by MPS teacher Melissa Bollow Tempel and Washington state education professor Wayne Au, Pencils Down is divided into several sections that examine each of these consequences of testing, and includes a guide for parents, teachers, and other groups for resisting the testing juggernaut. Each section is a collection of essays, articles, and papers, ranging from the anecdotal to the academic. The cumulative power of the collection is staggering, and it is one of the broadest condemnations of America’s testing regime in print today.

The book makes manifest the dangers of testing, which are many, but mostly concern the way (and the why) we teach children. Editor Au, early in the book, writes that “we are being tested to death.” He says “testing is killing education. Not only does it narrow the curriculum generally, it also promoted bad pedagogy.” As testing rises in importance, teaching and learning shrinks to just what is on the test. Because it is primarily schools with high poor and minority populations that are punished for low scores, Au says, this “zero-sum game” that is testing “create[s] more restrictive, less rich educational environments for the very students testing proponents claim to be helping.” Monty Neill, Executive Director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, agrees that standardized testing strips creativity and engagement out of classrooms. The testing mania means, he writes, “a much richer sampling of learning is ignored in favor of a narrow set of data called test scores.”

In a brilliantly depressing essay, literacy professor Maja Wilson explains how standardized testing kills the creative impulse in writing, too, suggesting that even when students aren’t merely bubbling in bubbles, they must still quash all individuality. Feeding acclaimed author Sandra Cisneros’s writing into a computer-based scoring program, Wilson finds she must rewrite the creative and imaginative text into a dull five-paragraph essay. “The five-paragraph essay,” she writes, “along with the computer programs developed to evaluate it, separated thought from language. The thought embodied by the words no longer mattered, as long as the thesis sentence was in the right place and the three main points were captured in topic sentences and the conclusion was safely summative.” Wilson says in this model, teachers (and computer scorers), become “quality control managers” at the student-essay factory.

Even when computers don’t score the writing, there’s no guarantee that anything approaching a student’s true measure will be identified. Pencils Down excerpts a small section of Todd Farley’s celebrated book about his exploits as a test reader, which will shock anyone who thinks these tests are scored by people who know teaching and learning for a living. They also reprint an essay by Dan DiMaggio, a former professional scorer who blew the whistle on–and was then blacklisted by–the test-scoring industry. These do not inspire hope.

As a teacher, I am personally struck by much of this book, because of its often-anecdotal nature. When Kelly McMahon, a former Milwaukee teacher, writes that she’s “seen a decrease in district initiatives that are developmentally appropriate and an increase in the amount of testing and data collection,” it hits home. She’s writing about five-year-olds–kindergarteners!–and the litany of district-mandated tests imposed upon them. But in my own classes, of mostly juniors, they are testing multiple times in a year: three MAP tests, the afore-mentioned ACT (perhaps more than once), whole-school common final and mid-term exams, four to six “writing on demand” sessions, and, for my AP students, one or more AP exams.

And I’m lucky. Because Wisconsin stops testing students after tenth grade, I get more freedom with my juniors than teachers of younger students do, so I can deliver the kind of formative and summative assessments throughout the year that engage, rather than disengage, my students–self-directed projects, creative presentations, meaningful contact with public figures, interesting original research. Despite what else my students do, I feel pretty confident that I am mostly judged these days by their MAP scores.

Which are not necessarily accurate. Last month during MAP testing, two of my first-hour students’ scores fell 24 and 34 points, respectively, from their December MAP scores in reading. They dropped from what was considered proficient for a high school student to what is barely proficient for a fifth-grader. Is this because in the intervening months I made them stupider? No–it’s because the MAP test, like any standardized test, is discrete from, and therefore unimportant to, the more authentic work students do in class. One of them re-took the test and scored this time not 24 points lower but 12 points higher than December–a test that didn’t count because the computer calculated a higher standard deviation for that test. (There’s also my student who increased 25 points between December and April–clearly, he waited until the spring test to bother trying.)

And, though it provides no comfort, there’s a section in Pencils Down about this notion that teachers might be judged based on test scores. It’s coming–MPS, where I teach, is rolling out a new system that includes a school’s test scores in a teacher’s overall evaluation. New York City and Los Angeles have seen tremendous protest against their publicizing of teachers’ “value-added” rankings, and Pencils Down includes the story of LA teacher Rigoberto Ruelas, who killed himself after the LA Times printed those rankings.

The book also has discussions of other effects on teachers and pre-service teachers that, while less severe than suicide, are no less consequential to the future of our education system, including the standardized tests teachers have to take. (More are coming; Wisconsin is about to roll out more testing for new teachers.) New teachers today have grown up in the 1990s’ “standards” movement and the 2000s’ “No Child Left Behind” era–they are test-takers themselves, and they will see nothing wrong with perpetuating the testing in the students they teach.

Finally, Pencils Down does include a section on “Beyond High-Stakes Standardized Testing.” In it, the text chronicles ideas that could be–and others that have been–implemented to “test” K-12 students in real, authentic, and meaningful ways. There are lessons for all of us in New York’s Performance Standards Consortium and Wyoming’s “Body of Evidence” strategy. Neill and Rethinking Schools founding editor (and current Milwaukee teachers union president) Bob Peterson praise those and name a half-dozen other strategies, from performance assessments like Milwaukee used to have to portfolios, as ways to judge students’ progress that don’t stifle creativity, narrow the curriculum, or separate assessment from learning.

Neill and Peterson admit that such assessments will “take more work, more time, and more resources.” But surely it is worth it to know for certain how well our students are really doing, surely it is worth it to restore teaching and learning to the arts that they once were. That is the ultimate lesson of Pencils Down: Our children deserve better than to grow up in a world where testing has killed teaching, and where their futures lie in the hands of those who think “The Pineapple and the Hare” can give us insight into their learning.


  • Ann Berlak says:

    Jay Bullock writes: “Neill and Rethinking Schools founding editor …Bob Peterson praise those and name a half-dozen other strategies, from performance assessments like Milwaukee used to have to portfolios, as ways to judge students’ progress that don’t that don’t stifle creativity, narrow the curriculum, or separate assessment from learning.

    Bullock probably would not have made this claim about performance assessment if he had read my chapter in Pencils Down entitled “Coming soon to a credential program near you: National exit exams,” first published in Rethinking Schools in December 2010. In the article I show that PACT–Performance Assessment of California Teachers- has the same effect upon credential candidates and credential programs as high stakes standardized tests have on k-12, and present equivalent validity and reliability problems. Contrary to Bullock’s claim, this particular so-called performance assessment as embodied in the Teacher Performance Assessments (TPAs), does stifle creativity, narrow the curriculum, and separate assessment from learning. A likely reason for the absence of critique of PACT and the TPAs that have now been adopted as the assessment mechanism in New York and a number of other states (and are now administered by Pearson) is that they were devised and initiated by Linda Darling-Hammond. Finally, thanks to a recent New York Times article entitled “Move to Outsource Teacher Licensing Process Draws Protest” (May 6), the cat seems to be out of the bag. Read the NYT article and my article in Rethinking Schools.

    • Jay Bullock says:

      Ann, I’m sorry if I was unclear. In that paragraph, I was talking about alternatives to K-12 standardized testing, not the kind of testing being used in teacher prep programs. You’ll see that in the paragraph above, I do note that there is a section on how teachers are tested. I didn’t have time or space to get into your paper, but I did read it, and (as someone who works with pre-service teachers every year) I am concerned about what the politicians are demanding of teacher-prep programs.

      But for K-12: As an English teacher in Milwaukee, I have seen the difference in teaching and learning since MPS abandoned the performance assessments Peterson writes about for its graduating seniors. I would give anything to have those back in place of MAPs and the state test!

      UPDATED TO ADD: I have inserted “K-12” into the original review to help avoid the confusion for future readers.

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