The "Wisdom" of Pearson's Pineapple Passage

In a letter to the New York State Education Department, mega-test and textbook publisher Pearson Education defended a controversial reading passage and questions on the recently administered eighth grade reading assessment. Pearson claimed the passage was a reliable measure of student understanding of "character traits, motivation and behavior." New York State, which paid Pearson $32 million to develop assessment tests, announced that it would not count these questions or questions on a recent fifth-grade math test that was either a misprint or required prior knowledge of material not taught in the fifth-grade curriculum.

In the letter, reported on in the New York Times and Time magazine, Pearson claimed that answers to questions based on the reading passage the "Pineapple and the Hare" could be derived from "evidence" available in the text. One question asked students which was the wisest animal. According to Pearson, "The owl declares that 'Pineapples don't have sleeves,' which is a factually accurate statement. This statement is presented as the moral of the story, allowing a careful reader to infer that the owl is the wisest animal."

Merryl Tisch, chancellor of the New York State Board of Regents, had an interesting twist on the controversy. She thought the pineapple question "made sense in context," but did not think it should have been used because "it added fuel to arguments by those who oppose using testing in teacher evaluations."

Tisch told the New York Times that the Pearson exams were in no way invalidated by the plethora of errors plaguing them: "I take full responsibility for all of these errors, I do, I do, do . . . And I would hope that Pearson as a producer of these exams would join me in this responsibility." She added,"Does it invalidate the test? Definitely not." She also dismissed critics as people who are "really just trying to push back, not only against the test, but against testing in general and against teacher evaluations in specific."

An Internet petition protesting against high-stakes standardized tests has been launched by a coalition of over 100 organizations and United Optout is organizing a national boycott of Pearson to combat the privatization of education in the United States.

However, what has been missing from much of the debate over the wisdom of the Pearson pineapple passage so far has been discussion of what wisdom actually is and what the New York State curriculum standards that are supposed to be the basis for instruction and assessment are.

Clearly Pearson and Tisch need some lessons in classical philosophy.

I decided to read up about wisdom in the University of Chicago's The Great Ideas, A Syntopicon of Great Books of the Western World edited by noted philosopher Mortimer Adler and published by the Encyclopedia Britannica in 1952. Wisdom, discussed in volume 3 of the 50 book collection, is identified as one of the 102 great ideas of Western Civilization.

According to the Syntopicon, Plato did not believe human philosophers could actually achieve wisdom because this was a property reserved for the Gods. People, but not pineapples, hares, or owls, could only hope to be lovers of wisdom, contemplating truth and using whatever understanding they managed to acquire to direct their conduct (1102-1103). Aristotle, unlike Plato, believed humans could acquire wisdom through intellectual excellence, but he did not believe wisdom necessarily provided philosophers with moral virtue (1104). Aristotle also believed in practical wisdom, which he defined as concern with "things about which it is possible to deliberate" (1104). The Syntopicon describes Roman Catholic theologian and philosopher Thomas Aquinas, who lived from 1225 to 1274, as an Aristotelian, or follower of Aristotle. Aquinas believed the essential quality of a wise man was his capacity to "order and to judge" (1105).

Based on my understanding of Plato, Aristotle, and Thomas Aquinas, owl, at least in this passage, would not be wise. Owl announced the fact that the pineapple did not have sleeves, but it did not explain, draw conclusions based on the observation, or make choices. The only animal that displayed any "wisdom" in the classical sense in this story is probably the hare, who decided to race the pineapple because of his knowledge that the pineapple could not run. The moral of the story of course is that it is a good thing the eighth graders don't read Plato, Aristotle, and Thomas Aquinas.

Pearson and Tisch probably also need to familiarize themselves with New York State Learning Standards. The social studies learning standards, with which I am most familiar, require that middle school students who took this reading assessment should be able to gather, organize, classify, know, describe, understand, explore, investigate, consider, explain, analyze, and interpret information in order to be considered "wise." Teachers are expected to be familiar with "Bloom's Taxonomy" that outlines higher-level thought provoking questions and are required to ask questions that encourage students to help understand and use information on a more sophisticated level.

If Pearson and Tisch were teachers being evaluated based on lesson of the pineapple, hare, and owl, because of their misapplication of the concept of wisdom and their failure to ask higher-order thinking questions, they would both be rated "UNSATISFACTORY."