Letter to the New York Times on November 30, about a November 21 article on admissions tests for kindergarten in Manhattan (from Willow Partington of Cambridge NY):
I hope that the trainers and administrators who do the testing for kindergarten admissions are aware of the possible alternative answers to their questions, and if they are not, that children will speak up.
When my son was tested for a coveted spot in a private prekindergarten [note: prekindergarten], he was asked, "What color is a banana?"
"White," he answered.
A banana isn't white!" he was told.
Fortunately, my son was not intimidated. He replied: "Yes, it is. The peel is yellow, but the banana is white."
He was accepted.
The child is distinguishing between banana referring to the fruit that you can buy in a store and banana referring to the part of the fruit that you eat. This makes sense; if you tell me that you ate a banana for dessert, I will not assume that you ate the fruit, peel and all. But the question "What color is an X?" is conventionally understood as asking about the external appearance of X as it most commonly presents itself to us, so "What color is a banana?" asks about the whole fruit and not just the part of it that is usually eaten, and the expected answer is "yellow".
Note that there are red and purple varieties of banana, and that naturally ripened yellow bananas go from green to greenish yellow to brownish yellow (not a "good" yellow) as they ripen. The bananas of commerce in the U.S. are almost all yellow varieties; in fact, they are almost all artificially ripened Cavendish bananas. The ripening process produces vivid yellow bananas. So unless a child taking the test is accustomed to eating red bananas — say, in a Central American neighborhood — the child will give the expected answer, "yellow".
In fact, the expected answer to the question "What color is an X?" is not just a single word of English (rather than a longer expression) and not just a color word of English, but a basic color word.
Expected answers are reinforced by material for small children — in the delightful board books by Tana Hoban (which are mostly wordless, though an adult is expected to produce the words) and in similar books that explicitly introduce vocabulary for colors, shapes, animals, and so on. Bananas, lemons, and ducklings are standard illustrations for YELLOW.
Children are often tested on other items — opposites, for example — in ways that tap conventions of language use. And the question "Which one of these things is not like the others?" is especially bound to cultural conventions, according to which certain properties of things are more salient than others. (My grand-daughter went through a period where she was ingenious in finding and defending non-standard answers to this question.) Kids are supposed to learn that there is only one right answer to such questions.
Language Log has visited a related topic several times in the past: the conventions that figure in standardized multiple-choice exams (in particular, the PSAT and SAT) on grammar and style. There's the Possessive Antecedent Proscription as it figured in the PSAT a while back. (Postings on the PAP are enumerated here.) And then a series of critiques of SAT questions (here, here, here, and here). As Mark Liberman wrote in the first of these, about sample questions for the SAT:
In each test sentence, I could easily see one place where some people would identify an error. However, each of the possible "errors" is doubtful at best, and "No Error" is always one of the options. As a result, my decision about how to answer becomes a judgment about the linguistic ideology of the College Board, not a judgment about English grammar and style.
Taking such tests is always an exercise in second-guessing the people who devised them.