NYC: No ‘Evolution’ on State Tests

New York City seems intent on one-upping even Kansas and Arkansas when it comes to bad educational policy. The NYC Department of Education has released a list of 50 words they say should not appear on state tests because they might offend someone. Included in that list: dinosaurs and evolution. Staks Rosch has the full list:

Abuse (physical, sexual, emotional, or psychological)

Alcohol (beer and liquor), tobacco, or drugs

Birthday celebrations (and birthdays)

Bodily functions

Cancer (and other diseases)

Catastrophes/disasters (tsunamis and hurricanes)

Celebrities

Children dealing with serious issues

Cigarettes (and other smoking paraphernalia)

Computers in the home (acceptable in a school or library setting)

Crime

Death and disease

Divorce

Evolution

Expensive gifts, vacations, and prizes

Gambling involving money

Halloween

Homelessness

Homes with swimming pools

Hunting

Junk food

In-depth discussions of sports that require prior knowledge

Loss of employment

Nuclear weapons

Occult topics (i.e. fortune-telling)

Parapsychology

Politics

Pornography

Poverty

Rap Music

Religion

Religious holidays and festivals (including but not limited to Christmas, Yom Kippur, and Ramadan)

Rock-and-Roll music

Running away

Sex

Slavery

Terrorism

Television and video games (excessive use)

Traumatic material (including material that may be particularly upsetting such as animal shelters)

Vermin (rats and roaches)

Violence

War and bloodshed

Weapons (guns, knives, etc.)

Witchcraft, sorcery, etc.

They shouldn’t discuss poverty? Or slavery? How exactly are you going to teach current events or history without those words? This is asinine.

31 comments on this post.
  1. D. C. Sessions:

    Reminds me of the old TV series, “The Unmentionables.”

    Seriously, looking at that list I can’t imagine how anyone could teach a class in American history or civics.

  2. Abby Normal:

    I’ve always found equals signs to be emotionally distressing. Two lines, so alike, so perfectly matched, yet they never get to meet. It’s like a romantic Shakespearean tragedy. We should ban equals signs too.

  3. Ellie:

    I would like to see something directly from the NYC Department of Education making this statement, because there’s nothing on the website. Furthermore, NYC, as much as it would love to, does not make policy for the entire State of NY. I did not do an extensive search, but I also didn’t find any official source for this story. If someone has something, I’d appreciate very much seeing it. I’m old. Sometimes, I miss stuff.

  4. dingojack:

    ‘Homes with swimming pools’? Seriously?
    I smell poe.
    Dingo

  5. uncephalized:

    Computers in the home? Homes with swimming pools? Homelessness? Poverty?

    So what, now we have to pretend that “there is no class division in this country”, and wealth disparity doesn’t exist, to avoid *offending* anyone? As if no one knows some people have swimming pools and computers and some don’t?

  6. uzza:

    One, these are not words, they’re topics
    Two,there’s no source
    Three, from the comments this is just a proposal

  7. Jordan Genso:

    I don’t see ‘dinosaurs’ on either the list provided here or the list in the cite.

    Also, why is ‘country music’ not on the list if ‘rap’ and ‘rock-and-roll’ are?

  8. Abby Normal:

    Ellie, I heard an interview with Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott confirming the list. I haven’t found a link the full interview, but a snippet can be found here.

  9. eric:

    Ellie @3: I couldn’t find a primary source, but CBS is reporting that they interviewed School Chancellor Dennis Walcott about it, and he defended the list. So it appears to be legit.

  10. eric:

    Argh, shoulda read Abby’s reply first. D’oh!

  11. timgueguen:

    There was a post up about this on Pharyngula the other day. Several commenters stated that these words aren’t supposed to be used if they’re not directly relevant to a test question. So a question like “Was slavery a cause of the US Civil War?” would be legitimate, while an algebra question that mentioned slaves would not.
    http://freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula/2012/03/27/perhaps-they-should-also-remove-the-word-education/

  12. ogremk5:

    3 days later and we go through this on this thread. sigh.

    First, I am a science content specialist with a major testing company. My job is writing, designing, and building assessments like this.

    Second, if you will go to the New York State Department of Education website and look at the actual standards for the students, you will find evolution is key topic number 3 with 11-12 sub topics under it. That is a primary area in their life sciences curriculum.

    Third, us CS people are experts at finding ways around things. Note that “common descent”, “speciation”, “natural selection”, etc are NOT on that list. I will explain why in a moment.

    Fourth, different states have different rules on their standardized tests. Some, if the item contains a word on the forbidden list, then the item is rejected. NO questions or supports considered. Some will allow the use of these words in content appropriate situations. Since evolution is a major topic for NY Life Sciences, then they very well might allow discussion of evolution IN LIFE SCIENCE, but not in English literacy. Same thing with slavery… OK in social studies, not OK as a math topic (for example).

    Fifth, these lists are MUCH more about reduce stresses on students and creating fair tests than some state conspiracy to remove evolution and dinosaurs from the curriculum. It’s the same reason we don’t ask questions about yachting. Some kids don’t have yachts. We don’t (generally) ask about specific diseases, because of that one kid that freaks out because their beloved aunt, grandmother, whatever just died from that disease. These types of tests are often used to determine graduation. No one wants to tell a HS senior that they can’t graduate because they had an emotional reaction to a test question. It happens, when I was a teacher I saw it happen. No, it’s not common, but we try to avoid that always. Same thing with birthdays and Christmas and all the other socioeconomic and religious issues.

    It doesn’t matter if the issue is real or myth. It doesn’t matter if the issue is “something kids have to learn to deal with”. The issues are real to these kids and it can screw up their test results.

    Trust me, a test that determines if a kid graduates from high school, is NOT the place you want to start teaching them about the harsh realities of life in the real world.

    Finally, as I said, I am an expert in the assessment industry. I’ve been the lead science specialist for two state programs and I’m currently running the science for a national project, which has a great deal of NSF funded research involved. I would be happy to answer any questions you might have about the industry or standardized testing… with the provision that I can’t go into detail about any specific project.

    Just please understand, that my fellow science specialists and myself are FIRMLY supportive of real science. There will be zero pseudoscience or creationism or anything else like that on any tests we develop, regardless of what the customer says they want.

    Most states are moving toward the Common Core. The Common Core does not have a science component, but the consensus seems to be that the K-12 Science Framework (available for free at the National Academy Press) will be the leading document for science standards at all grade levels and in most states (Texas and Alaska being the probable holdouts). Evolution and other real science (including climate change) are firmly entrenched in that document.

    I hope this helps.

  13. Ellie:

    @8 and @9 Thank you very much for the links. I had indeed, missed finding them. And thank you, Ogre @12 for the explanation.

  14. dingojack:

    “Abuse (physical, sexual, emotional, or psychological)
    Alcohol (beer and liquor), tobacco, or drugs
    Birthday celebrations (and birthdays)
    Bodily functions
    Cancer (and other diseases)
    Catastrophes/disasters (tsunamis and hurricanes)
    Children dealing with serious issues
    Crime
    Death and disease
    Divorce
    Halloween
    Homelessness
    Hunting
    Nuclear weapons
    Occult topics (i.e. fortune-telling)
    Politics
    Poverty
    Running away
    Sex
    Slavery
    Terrorism
    Traumatic material (including material that may be particularly upsetting such as animal shelters)
    Vermin (rats and roaches)
    Violence
    War and bloodshed
    Weapons (guns, knives, etc.)
    Witchcraft, sorcery, etc.”

    So the members of the NYC ‘DeptEd’ don’t read a lot of Young Adult Fiction, go to the movies or watch TV, then?

    Dingo
    —–
    PS: “Computers in the home (acceptable in a school or library setting)”.
    When was this list compiled, in the early Eighties?
    In England a laptop is being sold (marketed to late Primary School students, say 10-12 year olds) for £20. In African a hand cranked laptop with sattelite internet connection is being given away (they cost only a few dollars to make).

  15. Scott Simmons:

    This appears to be the original source of this story, including the hyperbolic overreactions.
    Don’t be Klaus from Top Secret!

  16. fifthdentist:

    Abby Normal, they should also ban parentheses. Setting off words inside them makes those words appear less important than those that are not similarly confined. It almost them seem like inferior words. Also, teaching biology (and especially dissection) without discussing bodily functions seems difficult.

  17. Nepenthe:

    The kneejerk reaction to this story is really a downer. My confidence in the rationality of the atheist blogosphere is waning.

    Gonna go look at kitten pictures now.

  18. eric:

    OgreMkV:

    Trust me, a test that determines if a kid graduates from high school, is NOT the place you want to start teaching them about the harsh realities of life in the real world.

    I mostly agree, but at the same time…isn’t this like saying “trust me, a graduation test is NOT the place you want to start teaching them literacy?”

    Clearly its not the place to start teaching how to deal with emotionally impactful language. I fully agree with you there. But if a diploma is intended to provide some assurance of competency in that, you are well justified in testing them on it regardless. Not-testing them on it because you suspect their preparation over the last four years has been inadequate just reduces the value of the diploma.

    Which is another alternative. We could just say that the U.S. H.S. diploma is not intended to provide any confidence to prospective employers that the holder can deal with socially charged concepts like “house with swimming pool” or “birthday party.” If you, a McDonald’s manager, hires this person to work a register and some group comes in to celebrate a birthday, our diploma provides no assurance that they can deal with that social situation. We promise they can count nickels, but we don’t promise they can serve a customer who might be talking about terrorism with a friend in line.

    Frankly, I think I’d prefer a marginally higher fail rate to such a caveat.

    I also don’t think the existence of people who are temporarily emotionally traumatized (i.e. by the recent death of a loved one or something) is a good counter-argument. You can retest for the GED 3/times per year; the simplest and easiest solution to temporary trauma is to retest later. The solution is not to remove the word ‘dog’ because you’re worried someone might have lost their dog the day before the test.

  19. James C.:

    @Nepenthe #17:

    Kitten pictures? Clearly you’re in support of the Orwellian conspiracy to censor vermin.

  20. Nepenthe:

    @eric

    Clearly its not the place to start teaching how to deal with emotionally impactful language. I fully agree with you there. But if a diploma is intended to provide some assurance of competency in that, you are well justified in testing them on it regardless.

    But a diploma is not an assurance that a person is emotionally resilient or assimilated into mainstream culture or whatnot. It’s theoretically an assurance that they can read and do basic math. They even let mentally ill people get them nowadays! *cradles diploma*

    Also, this is not simply the GED. This is all state tests, as far as I can tell from the extremely limited coverage available. Expecting an 8 year old to shrug off any emotional impact and do well on their non-repeatable test is pretty harsh.

    And more also: subconscious effects can have a significant impact on test performance, so even if a retake is possible, the student might not be overtly effected and know to retake. Just putting down demographic information before rather than after testing significantly depresses scores of girls and/or minority students. The conclusion to draw from this is not that women and/or racial minorities can’t deal with life and would be poor employees.

    Plus, why would we include language that will predictably confound the results (not in that we can predict the effect, but that we can predict some sort of effect)? Data from standardized tests are already abused for god-knows-what; shouldn’t we endeavor to start with good data?

  21. dingojack:

    Nepenthe – Did those nasty LOLCATZ tell you that nothing depresses the GED scores of women and minorities than the knowledge that some people have pools.
    @@
    Dingo

  22. ogremk5:

    Nepenthe,
    That’s it exactly.

    In an ideal world, the standardized test is used ONLY to say whether a student has mastery of a particular course (ONLY as outlined by the curriculum). If the student fails, then a tutorial program is developed for that student using test information. Then the student retests and all is well.

    We can say confidently that the student has at least the minimum needed knowledge, skills, or abilities in that area.

    Of course, most state programs are test in March or April. Fail. Don’t graduate. Go to summer school. Retest in August… hope for the best.

    And that is the ONLY thing a test is good for. Does that student have the required KSAs for that content area. Any other use of test data is incorrect.

  23. Cliff Hendroval:

    When I took the SAT, one of the reading comprehension questions was about sponges (the animal, not the cleaning implement). That would be about as emotionally neutral as one could get, I suppose, but after reading it about 20-25 times, the word “sponge” starts looking really weird.

  24. Nepenthe:

    @dingojack

    No, but they mentioned that poor kids already know that some people have gold-lined swimming pools in their backyards and don’t need to have their noses shoved in it while they’re being tested on their multiplication skills. Then again they might have been talking about bukits. They were mumbling.

    Caveat: I’m not saying that every exclusion on this list is awesome. Perhaps further research will reveal that mentions of signifiers of wealth (like personal swimming pools) do not have any effect on either poor kids or wealthy kids. It’s the kneejerk reaction to paying any attention to these sorts of test biases that is so troubling to me.

  25. ogremk5:

    We’re pretty good at identifying biases. And if any do creep into the items on the test, the field test results will reveal them (probably).

    For every item, we can compare how low SES did as compared to non-low SES. We can compare every gender and race to all other gender and races as well. We can compare how people did on any single item as compared to how they did overall.

    If any of those comparisons reveal any kind of statistical bias, then that item is reviewed by statisticians, the client, and us to determine if there is a need to reject the item.

  26. Nemo:

    after reading it about 20-25 times, the word “sponge” starts looking really weird.

    I think you’ll find that’s true of most words.

    “Words”… what a weird word.

  27. Ichthyic:

    The kneejerk reaction to this story is really a downer. My confidence in the rationality of the atheist blogosphere is waning.

    well, seconded in spirit, but I think the problem is not so much a decrease in rationality, so much as a lack of applying skepticism.

    a fault of everyone, and probably stems from the fact that so often, it turns out (like the Texas BoE), that there really ARE some egregious attempts to ruin good education.

    Still… yeah, I’m quite disappointed in the vetting of this particular story. Both PZ and Ed misfired here.

  28. Nepenthe:

    @Ichthyic

    I think the problem is not so much a decrease in rationality, so much as a lack of applying skepticism.

    Potato, potahto. Or maybe there’s a distinction here that I’m not getting.

    I can imagine isomorphic posts on WingNutDaily and similar, substituting “religion” for “evolution”, with corresponding commentary. And that’s, you know, sad.

  29. bananacat:

    I’ve heard about this and I think everyone is over-reacting.

    How exactly are you going to teach current events or history without those words?

    There’s your problem. This test isn’t intended to teach anybody anything. It’s meant to be an assessment of performance.

    Testing has to be unbiased. It’s not like they’re banning these words from the classroom, just from being used in the questions of this one specific test. This test is not mean to evaluate students’ familiarity with these specific concepts. It’s actually the more rational and scientific thing to do to attempt to remove as much bias as possible from testing.

    Whether or not standardized tests are an accurate measure of performance is a completely separate issue. But for them to have any chance of usefulness, they need to minimize bias. It would be wrong to put an intelligent child with creationist parents into a special ed program. It’s not about punishing someone’s upbringing, but about assessing their academic needs. And if a creationist student is misinformed but has high intelligence, it’s better to encourage their education so they’ll eventually learn about evolution.

  30. dingojack:

    Cliff Hendroval – try the gerund and past tense of ‘sauna’*.
    Dingo
    —–
    * ‘saunaing’ and ‘saunaed’

  31. dingojack:

    According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics:
    in 2011:
    93% of housholds with children under 15 has internet access
    95% of the highest quintile of income has internet access at home
    55% of the lowest quintile of income ” ” ” ” ”
    54% of households with incomes under $40,000p.a. ” ” ” ” ”
    97% of households with incomes over $120,000p.a. ” ” ” ” ”
    81% of household in inner cities ” ” ” ” ”
    70% of households in remote Australia ” ” ” ” ”
    The average percentage in Australia is 79%

    Source

    Using various water conservation documents from the ABS for different states, it would seem the around 17% of Austalian housholds have a pool*, and this number seems to have been stable for about 30 years.

    Just amazed that the wolrd’s only superpower can’t do better.

    Dingo
    —–
    * No information was available on whether they were with any kind of precious metal, alas. I’d assume they were mostly lined with fibreglass.

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