A half-baked test prep question?

casseroles, from Cameron Nordholm's site at flickr.com/creativecommons

Last night, a mom sent me a reading test-prep stumper involving casseroles. I was SURE I’d be able to nail it. I grew up in the Midwest in the 1980s and early 90s, so I’m no stranger to cream of mushroom soup or Tater Tots. If anyone would know the answer, I thought, it’s me.

She writes:

My daughter brought home a “Practice and Mastery” book to prep for the 4th grade CA language arts standards. She was stumped at the following question in the Word Analysis section:

Read this sentence: She baked a very tasty casserole.

The word ‘casserole’ is
a) a Spanish word meaning bread
b) a Chinese word meaning platter
c) a French word meaning small bowl
d) an Italian word meaning ice cream

My daughter has no idea what a casserole is in the American context because she’s never eaten one. She doesn’t recall this word being on a spelling list.

Although my daughter has consistently tested “Advanced” in ELA and Math since 2nd grade, I concede that she may well have forgotten the particular material that would help her answer this question. However, I admit that I’m surprised by this particular question because it relies on knowing something very specific in order to answer it. I fail to see where the “skill” is. Would love to know what other parents think.


Katy Murphy

Education reporter for the Oakland Tribune. Contact me at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com.

  • Lu

    This question is seeing if your fourth grader knows that casserole (French for small bowl) is a Latin root word. French is a Latin based language, therefore ….It is part of the standard for fourth grade for vocabulary and concept development 1.4 – Know common roots and affixes derived for Greek and Latin and use this knowledge to analyze the meaning of complex words. Is it a good example? NO!! Is it fairly typical? Unfortunately, yes.

    The good news is the tests are long, and the child will probably still score very well.

  • Oakland Teacher

    I have seen this question before. It is yet another example of how the tests are always culturally biased. I have seen questions about snorkeling; how many of our students have had any experience or familiarity with even the word before? For those students who vacation in Hawaii and Mexico, the question would be much easier to answer. Is it any wonder that middle class students have an advantage?

    PS – I actually don’t know the answer to your casserole question, but would use my prior knowledge to guess “c”, only because I remember what a casserole looks like. I also know that Italian ice cream is called gelato, bread in Spanish is “pan”, and the word casserole does not sound Chinese. Are fourth grade students supposed to have the same life experience as a 40+ year old teacher?

  • Union Supporter-But

    What about those fourth grade teachers that choose, as my child’s teacher, not to teach Greek and Latin roots because she doesn’t want to? My child’s teacher absolutely refuses to teach this standard; her reason, “Greek and Latin roots are taught in college classes.”

    I would not be culturally biased if the root words, prefixes and suffixes are taught as part of the minimum State Standards in every classroom. I believe the current teacher’s contract states they will teach the standards. Am I correct?

  • http://www.thefrustratedteacher.com/ TFT

    First, was the test prep book from the curricular materials the district adopted, or some other, private publishing source?

    And about 1.4 of the CCS, I am not sure they had casserole in mind. I think they are talking about things like graph, bio, geo, re, graph and such.

  • http://www.thefrustratedteacher.com/ TFT

    I really like graph I guess.

  • http://perimeterprimate.blogspot.com/ Sharon Higgins

    In this enjoyable video Dan Willingham, a cognitive psychologist, convincingly “describes why content knowledge is essential to reading with comprehension, and why teaching reading strategies alone is not sufficient that students read with good comprehension.”


  • Another Oakland Teacher

    Claims of cultural and class bias in these state tests are completely overblown. Are there such biases? Certainly. That said, it is incumbent on the teacher to compensate for that bias by adequately preparing students for these tests.

    I teach sixth graders in East Oakland. All but two of my students are native speakers of English. Perhaps one of them has heard the word “casserole” before. I am by no means the world’s greatest teacher, but my students at least know how to approach a question like this one. Two words: context clues. Granted, this question is a bit outrageous in that there’s hardly any context–aside from the word “baked,” which helps to eliminate (d). They’d also likely notice that “casserole” does not sound like Chinese. Most questions of this sort give students a bit more to work with, but hey, narrowing the choices down to (a) and (c) gives the test-takers a fighting chance.

    To Union Supporter-But: A teacher who refuses to cover word origins should be flogged for that kind of obstinacy. First of all, he/she might find that the students really enjoy learning about Latin and Greek roots. (My students certainly do, but I’m a recovering Classics major, so perhaps I’m a bit partial to teaching this sort of thing). Secondly, Latin and Greek may seem a bit esoteric in the context of a fourth grade language arts lesson, but I cannot overstate the importance of teaching commonly-occurring affixes like “inter-,” “pre-,”or “-able.”

    Again, I will concede that the “casserole” example is extreme, but let’s be careful about where we point fingers when debating the importance of standards and standardized testing handicaps.

  • Hills mama

    Hi, I’m the one who emailed Katy. Thanks, Katy, for posting my query and keep the comments coming, folks.

    This is the booklet:

    The message “To the Student” on the inside of the booklet’s cover says, “This book provides practice with the reading and writing skills that students in grade 4 should master.”

    I went through the booklet again and found a similar question:

    “Many homes in the Southwest are made of adobe.
    The word adobe is:
    a) a French word meaning glass
    b) a Spanish word meaning brick
    c) an Italian word meaning wood
    d) a Hopi word meaning village”

    I asked my daughter why this question did not stump her and she said it was because she learned about adobe bricks during her class field trip to the Peralta Hacienda. She also reports that she did not learn about Greek or Latin roots this year and while I’m willing to concede that she may have forgotten but I really doubt that’s the case…

  • Hills mama

    Oakland Teacher, thanks for your comments, I really appreciate them. My daughter is an excellent test taker (my husband has taught her every trick he knows) and she did narrow it down to (a) and (c). She asked, “why would someone bake a bowl?” It made more sense that someone would bake bread BUT she also knew that this wasn’t strictly a vocabulary question.

  • Hills mama

    …sorry, got sidetracked.

    Oakland Teacher, I’m curious – how would a student learn that a word like casserole is probably a French word meaning small bowl and that the word adobe is a Spanish word meaning brick? What are the roots are affixes that would clue them into these words’ origins? And if the students learn that these are Latin at what point do they learn that French and Spanish are Latin languages? I am truly curious about this because I review my daughter’s homework most nights and I’ve never come across any such lessons.

    I’m also curious about what other teachers have to say. If these questions do not reflect your understanding of what you should be teaching to meet the ELA content standard 1.4, how do you feel about your students getting questions such as these on a test?

  • http://www.thefrustratedteacher.com/ TFT

    I posted earlier that the word casserole is not what is meant by 1.4, rather things like geo, psych, inter, able and the rest.

    The test booklet you are using is from a greedy publisher trying to make a killing on test prep materials. Either OUSD (is that your district?) or the teacher spent money to buy these prep books because that’s what teachers do now–prep for tests.

  • http://www.thefrustratedteacher.com/ TFT

    By law you can opt your kid out of the state test, you know. Your principal will be angry though.

  • http://www.thefrustratedteacher.com/ TFT

    And the word casserole has its root in the French casse meaning ladle or dripping pan, not bowl as far as I could tell. That is why I am confident 1.4 does not expect 4th graders to figure out what casserole means. I would not expect it to be on the test.

  • http://educationreport CJA

    I have seen harder questions than this on last years ELA benchmark. It was in relation to a YIDDISH word haha

  • Lu

    Hills Mama – Some of these “vocabulary” questions are pulling from things that are taught in content areas, like social studies – the adobe reference is a perfect example. In fourth grade we teach California History, there are many explanations and examples of uses of adobe. Plus your example sentence in that question has some context to get to bricks. The casserole question is a bad question, poorly written. My first post was a stab at what the test writers thought they doing.

    On Greek, Latin and other languages from which English is derived, I find myself talking to my kids (I teach in Oakland) all the time about roots, affixes, where words came from (helps know how to spell and pronounce) as well to to derive meaning. It is good fun for everyone.

    In general our testing culture is crazy.

  • Lauren

    These types of questions make me angry for their obvious cultural bias. As a 6th grader teacher, a sample question has required students to know that a “faux pas” is a French word meaning a mistake from a sentence with NO context. Even if you had heard of this word, it wouldn’t help you when you have to identify it in print.

    The standard isn’t about Latin/Greek roots in this case (6th grade); to paraphrase, the standard basically says that students need to know words in the English language that come from a different language: Hebrew, French, Latin, Italian, Spanish.

    It is a total crapshoot about which words to “teach” (i.e. encourage students to memorize)

    Luckily there is usually only 1 or 2 questions, so as someone said before, they don’t make a huge difference.

  • Oakland Teacher

    A student would NOT learn that there is a root word meaning small bowl; that is not what the standards for any grade would entail. My point is that the wider the range of experience a student has had, the more schema, the more able they would be to make meaning of any topic, and the more likely they would also be able to eliminate items. That all equals a higher likelihood of answering a question correctly.

    I don’t know of any Latin/Greek root word or affix that would help them (or me) correctly answer this question. That is why I modeled how I would figure it out: using my wide range of experience along with growing up eating casseroles to help “guess” the right answer. I would not expect my students to have the same background.

    Questions like these make me feel that many students are being shortchanged with the current questions and the constant testing. They make me feel as though my students would be far better served by having more time for word study and for enrichment through increased exposure to the outside world, e.g. museums, cooking, art classes, foreign language instruction, or even music! It is also a good point about the student who went to the Peralta Hacienda, but what about the students at schools who rarely take field trips? Just hearing the word “adobe” read during a California history lesson does not have the same impression on students.

  • Lauren

    Here is the 6th grade standard:

    6RW1.3 Vocabulary and Concept Development: Recognize the origins and meanings of frequently used foreign words in English and use these words accurately in speaking and writing.

    Here is state-released test question found online:

    53 Read this sentence. At dinnertime Abuelita said, “It’s time to put the horses back into the __________.” Which Spanish word meaning “enclosure” can be used to complete the sentence?
    A bronco
    B corral
    C rodeo
    D lasso

    “horses” does provide some context, but ALL of the answers have some connection to horses, so it really comes down to whether or not you know what a corral is. No skill, just background knowledge.

  • Lauren

    Sorry my comments have been split up, but I posted the 6th grade standard, for those who insisted that a) a state standard wouldn’t ask for obscure roots, etc. or that b) the question was a bad example from a test prep book.

    In fact, the real CST questions can be that obscure for a student with less background knowledge related to these words.

  • Hills mama

    TFT: OUSD is my district.

    Oakland Teacher: I agree with you 100%. I am now wondering if the actual CST is made by the same publisher of this prep book. I was not able to find an answer but I did find past Qs from the 4th grade CST that are similar to the ones in the test booklet (retrieved from http://www.cde.ca.gov/ta/tg/sr/documents/cstrtqela4.pdf).

    All three questions pertain to the Standard “4RW1.4 Vocabulary and Concept Development: Know common roots and affixes derived from Greek and Latin and use this knowledge to analyze the meaning of complex words (e.g., international).”

    Here they are:

    41. The root word in subterranean is terra, which in Latin means “earth” or “ground.” Subterranean must be something
    A made out of dirt or soil.
    B planted in the ground.
    C under the earth or ground.
    D on a beach or riverbank.

    56. Mom inspected my room after I cleaned it. The word inspected contains the Latin root spect. What does spect mean?
    A use
    B look
    C take
    D need

    58. Read this sentence. The construction of the house will be completed next month.
    The Latin root “struct” in the word construction means:
    A measure.
    B build.
    C study.
    D shape.

    I ran through these questions with my daughter before she climbed into bed and she answered all of them correctly…#41 because she knew what “sub” means, and #56 & #58 because she knew what these words in and of themselves meant.

    What do you think of these questions? Do you think they reflect good measures of 4RW1.4? Personally, I find these questions strange. Take #41. It directs the student to the root word terra but what the student really needed to know in order to answer the question is that the prefix “sub” means “under”.

  • Nextset

    This is the same thread as the controvery over asking urban kids a question where the correct answer is “regatta”. The critics whined that it was “unfair” to use such a word that obviously was biased towards Ken and Barbie.

    Here’s the point. If the “students” in question read books or studied they would in the course of such study have routinely come across that word and learned it. These standardized tests are set to the level of Ken and Barbie. That’s the point. They are deselecting people who don’t read and don’t study. Which is why studious immigrants are outscoring Otis and Latifa.

    Perhaps the critics will next say that Ken and Barbie don’t have to study very hard if the tests cover their casual experiences. Well, duhhh. I have friends who take their children on tours of various world capitals every year. Maybe their kids don’t have to study geography to the extent Otis and Latifa should. Isn’t money grand?

    When these tests are constructed questions are assembled that (typically) select or deselect for the liklihood of success in higher ed. Ken and Barbie have higher likelihood of that and Otis and Latifa don’t. There will be no questions easy for O & L because those would be worthless.

  • Kang and Kodos

    This question is so clearly biased! Casseroles are disgusting. And besides, I’m sure any respectable alien would rather eat dishware then a food item.

  • Local Teacher

    For once, I actually agree with Nextset’s comment, at least part of it. The goal of these standards is not to teach specific greek or latin roots to students and have them memorize them. The standard is more about the big picture of vocabulary development that students would derive from reading widely. A low-income student who does not have access to some of the experiences mentioned above can answer these types of questions if that student has read widely and retained a large vocabulary.

    In their reading, they should come across a wide variety of experiences, some which may be familiar and many which may not be familiar. This is one way that background knowledge on a topic may be built without having the student experience something first hand. If a classroom is rich with vocabulary and students have the opportunity to read extensively, they should do fine on these types of questions, which in my opinion, do not present any sort of cultural bias.

  • Nextset

    Local Teacher: The more I’m exposed to actuarial science, the more it seems to me that we are now able to make predictions about which people will get a 4 year degree – maintain employment and housing, go to prison or steal – or most other behaviors. Testing and profiling is becoming more accurate. Given enough data and protection from Affirmative Action and Political Correctness we can create scoring systems that allow us to sort people for future behavior.

    The people on the receiving end of this process don’t like it and love to complain that a particular question/factor isn’t “fair” no matter how strongly it correlates to the uptimate question. Race is relevant in many (all?) instances of behavior prediction. If you drop Race as a factor it still gets in by proxy factors for race. Ditto Gender. It does little good to tiptoe around it.

    NCLB includes the largest data collection in history of academic performance and race. The only thing I could compare it to is the US Military’s 100 year collection of IQ testing and race. You can’t assemble all that data and expect everyone not to use it.

    This thread is part of the constant complaint that some people don’t like a test question or factor because it displeases them. No one cares how people feel when they are designing a test that accurately sorts people into the desired group. Any factor that selects winners from losers is going to get used. While I don’t know is that question was cross validated on test groups to see if it has any predictive validity – that kind of work is the business of the test designers. They can screw up, people do occasionally. But in the long term these tests mean something if they are professionally assembled.

    Now we have DMV testing, Military induction and classification testing, employment testing, occupational licensing testing, college admission testing, etc. And in each case poor blacks/browns have big problems. What to do? What to do??

    Knowledge is power. I would hope that the public schools teach early and often what is coming and why. The students I’ve seen from the urban schools are so clueless about reality and how life it going to be they are impaired. The schools appear to want to shelter them – coddle them actually. Bind thier feet more likely. Above all the schools want to tell them they have a “right” to be they way they are and they way they (and their families?) want to be (low class). That needs to end. Because it’s getting harder and harder to have any social/economic mobility once you adopt lower class mores in school. Thus my concern that deportment is not being taught in public school. You don’t read much in a blackboard jungle.

  • mary

    next you ought to look at how many elementary teachers (public and private)flat out skip P.E., Science, and/or Social Studies. Law says 20 minutes of P.E. daily, not accumulated in a week. Science is tough to teach at any level if the previous level skipped the intro skills and knowledge base: mastery is not necessary to provide a study process for students. Social Studies allows students to understand where we came from, our social pattern, and the possibilities of choice/vote. There is a reason for these. In the 80’s when money was threatened in public schools, one suggestion was to cut Reading and Math from the curriculum. Do not gasp. These skills could be absorbed in the remaining Science, Art, Social Studies, etc. however, these frivolus subjects have instead been curtailed. There is a lot to be fortified in education…

    About the alleged misbehaving teacher at Lazear: it takes a firm, formal, legal letter by early October to be able to properly reprimand or remove any teacher by June…This is rare because it takes so much time of documentation. Once documentation has begun, a principal also has to document the like behaviors of behaving teacher to show that there is no preferential or disparaging effort on the part of the principal to just pick on any teacher…You are talking about 20 hours of documentation per week to stay legal.