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Today's tests burst bubble of creativity

Sharpen the No. 2. It's time for a test.

Q: What happens when the Department of Education tries to get creative on a statewide eighth-grade English exam?

A) Students are flummoxed.

B) A testing company paid millions to develop state exams ducks responsibility.

C) The state Department of Education insists its questions about a talking pineapple "make more sense in the context of the full passage" despite general consensus that they don't.

D) The credibility of standardized tests is undermined.

Perplexed because there seems to be more than one right answer? Don't worry, there are. Just as there were two right answers to a question on a statewide math test for fourth-graders last week.

But that won't count against you.

Here's the Cliffs Notes version to bring you up to speed: Eighth-graders were treated to a clever story called "The Hare and the Pineapple" this month on a standardized test.

At least, it would have been clever, had it not left students completely confused in the midst of an important exam.

The passage -- a new take on Aesop's old fable -- involves a talking pineapple who challenges a hare to a race.

It gets weirder.

Hare's animal friends spend most of the story debating what tricks the pineapple has up its sleeve. When, two hours into the race, the pineapple still hasn't budged, the animals eat the pineapple.

The story's moral: "Pineapples don't have sleeves."

Here's where it gets really confusing.

Two of the six questions that followed the passage didn't make any sense -- a notion State Education Commissioner John B. King continued to dispute despite the department's decision to not count the questions.

"First of all, the 'passage' printed in the media is not complete," King said in a written statement after the New York Daily News first reported the test hubbub. "Although the questions make more sense in the context of the full passage, due to the ambiguous nature of the test questions the department has decided it will not be counted against students in their scores."

I've read the pineapple passage repeatedly, and I still can't confidently answer the two controversial questions.

But it did get me thinking about creativity and the classroom -- the type of learning that inspires students to be curious about the world and sets them on a course of lifelong learning.

It seems at serious risk of being lost in today's rote educational world of standardized tests and spiraling costs.

School districts have had to become so focused on preparing students for testing that there's little time or money left for the types of programs that once inspired students to think outside the multiple-choice bubble.

I was lucky to be a part of an elementary school program that challenged us to use creativity, develop logic and think critically. I can still recall details of stories we read and creative problems we solved in Mrs. Redmond's Spectrum class at South Davis Elementary.

The talking pineapple and its mixed-up moral might have been the kind of story that got us thinking about allegories and idioms back then, but not if it was crammed into a multiple-choice test.

Would I have been in that same environment if I went to the school today? Sadly, not this year. The district's Spectrum program was cut because of budget constraints. School officials hope to partially reinstate it next year.

The Department of Education might have unintentionally been onto something when it stumbled into the land of "The Hare and the Pineapple."

There's a place for talking pineapples in school. Just not on standardized tests.