Have you ever had one of those nightmares where you sit down to take the big test and none of the questions make sense? What's the right answer? What does the question even mean?

Thousands of eighth graders taking the recent New York State English assessment exam had this experience in real life. They were confronted with at least two (and possibly more) baffling, and seemingly unanswerable, questions. One section of the test asked students to answer questions about a story featuring a talking pineapple and a hare. The hare challenges the pineapple to a race. The trouble is, pineapples can't run—or even move. The spectators, all talking animals, think it's a trick and bet on the pineapple. The fruit stays frozen in place and loses, of course! The animals eat the pineapple. End of story.

So, why did the animals eat the poor pineapple? And which animals were the wisest? If you have no clue, join the club. Jeopardy super-champion Ken Jennings was asked by a local paper to figure this one out but he was stumped.

This latest test question controversy is one of many that have rocked the worlds of parents and teachers across the country recently. In New York, as in many other states, teacher evaluations, school ratings and student class placements are all based on test scores from exam questions such as these. Given the high-stakes nature of school testing, what's a parent to do when confronted with test material that's confusing, unfair or just plain ridiculous?

As a parent you don't have to just accept sub-standard testing. Start by taking some proactive steps for a better—and fairer—testing experience for your child:

  • Keep it in perspective. First things first. Before going ballistic, talk to other parents and get some perspective on the problem. If your child was confused by an exam question, find out if others were also. Just because your child did poorly on a few questions doesn't mean that the problem is the test. Even the brightest child can have a bad test day. Although you can't ask Ken Jennings to give his opinion on every test question, you can find out if there's general agreement that one or more items on a test were bewildering or inappropriate. With the support of other parents, you can take action with confidence.
  • Communicate your concerns. Talk to teachers and school officials. Schools take these tests seriously and they want your feedback so contact them if you think that something's wrong. Mike Haykin, director of learning support for the Seattle Academy of Arts and Sciences, says, "Schools and school administrators will contact testing companies with concerns. In my school, we recently dropped a test because of test deficiencies." Testing affects teachers as well as students, and educators in partnership with parents can work to improve testing instruments for the benefit of all.
  • Go public. Air any concerns that you have about the test or the testing process publicly. There are a number of blogs and online forums devoted to school and educational topics. The parents in New York State were so outraged that they took to the message boards in large numbers and contacted local media. As a result the recent bizarre questions won't be counted when scoring this particular exam.
  • Contact the testing company. Find out who's supplying the test material for your state and school district by contacting your local school board or district officials. There are a few large companies that specialize in creating test content and questions for the state exams. Mike Haykin says that testing companies have rectified scores for bad questions in some cases. Again, there's strength in numbers. Contacting these companies as part of a parent group or parent/teacher association will be more effective.
  • Parent power. Don't underestimate your power as a parent to influence testing policy. The most effective parents are proactive from the start. Don't just object to one or two questions after the fact—make suggestions about how to better test and assess students and teachers on an ongoing basis. Whether talking to school officials, posting a comment or having a pow-wow with your fellow parents, stay positive and engaged. Investigate testing companies, talk policy with your local school board or PTA and communicate with your local political representatives. Educational testing policies are always evolving and change starts from the bottom up.
  • Children first. Always keep in mind how your actions will affect your child. Haykin says that while there's a lot that parents can do about bad tests, "the first thing a parent should do is to make sure their parenting energy and emotion is directed to the most important actions to support their child. Spending much emotional and time currency fighting a testing company can result in increasing anxiety for your child, stress for you and no positive outcome."

Assessment test are designed to help your child—not cause anxiety. If something's wrong you have the right to do something about it. So speak up, stay involved, stay positive and keep high-stakes testing in perspective—and everyone will benefit.