Political correctness gone wild: NYC wants to ban mention of dinosaurs, evolution, and pepperoni on standardized tests

Get this: New York City wants to ban the words “dinosaurs” and “evolution” from standardized school tests because the words are considered “controversial.”  According to CNN, these are merely a few of fifty words that are to be deep-sixed from the tests because they’re considered “loaded” or because they may offend child and adult sensibilities:

The banned word list was made public – and attracted considerable criticism – when the city’s education department recently released this year’s “request for proposal” The request for proposal is sent to test publishers around the country trying to get the job of revamping math and English tests for the City of New York.

The Department of Education’s says that avoiding sensitive words on tests is nothing new, and that New York City is not the only locale to do so. California avoids the use of the word “weed” on tests and Florida avoids the phrases that use “Hurricane” or “Wildfires,” according to a statement by the New York City Department of Education.

In its request for proposal, the NYC Department of Education explained it wanted to avoid certain words if the “the topic is controversial among the adult population and might not be acceptable in a state-mandated testing situation; the topic has been overused in standardized tests or textbooks and is thus overly familiar and/or boring to students; the topic appears biased against (or toward) some group of people.”

Here, from SIlive.com (a site from Staten Island) is a complete list of the 50 banned words.  “Dinosaurs” doesn’t appear here, but does on other lists, and note the E-WORD (my emphasis):

  • 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.

CNN continues:

Matthew Mittenthal, a spokesman for the NYC Department of Education, said this is the fifth year they have created such a list.  He said such topics “could evoke unpleasant emotions in the students.”

“Dinosaurs” evoking unpleasant emotions? The New York Post speculated that the “dinosaurs” could “call to mind evolution, which might upset fundamentalists.”

But what the tabloid failed to realize is that those “fundamentalists” who oppose evolution on religious grounds, believe wholeheartedly in dinosaurs.

Anyway, a lot of the list appears to pander to religious concerns.  That’s okay insofar as favoring one faith over another, or faith over atheism, violates the Constitution. But this degree of extremism is simply stupid:

Apparently many of the words on New York’s list were  avoided because of faith-based concerns.

For instance, the use of the word “birthday” or the phrase “birthday celebrations” may offend Jehovah’s Witnesses, who do not celebrate birthdays. A spokesperson for the Jehovah’s Witnesses declined to comment on the use of the word “birthday.”

The Department of Education would not go on the record to explain the specific reasons for each word, which has left many to speculate and draw their own conclusions.

Halloween may suggest paganism; divorce may conjure up uneasy feelings for children in the midst of a divorce within their family. One phrase that may surprise many, the term “Rock ‘n’ Roll” was on the “avoid” list.

And not good news for Italians: the Department of Education also advised avoiding  references to types of food, such as pepperoni, products they said “persons of some religions or cultures may not indulge in.”

Good Lord, the degree to which children are protected these days! Kids can’t even ride their bikes around the neighborhood any more. (Do I sound like a curmudgeon? Very well, then, I sound like a curmudgeon. I am large; I contain many ages.) I agree with Stanford education professor Sam Weinburg, who, when told about the list, had this response:

When reached by phone said Wineburg, after a brief pause on the line, “the purpose of education is to create unpleasant experiences in us. … The Latin meaning if education is ‘to go out.’  Education is not about making us feel warm and fuzzy inside.”

Wineburg questioned the idea that the New York City Department of Education would want to “shield kids from these types of encounters.”  He said the goal of education is to “prepare them,” adding “this is how we dumb down public schools.”

106 Comments

  1. Posted April 2, 2012 at 10:36 am | Permalink

    Cripes, how do these kids get out of bed in the morning?

    • Dominic
      Posted April 2, 2012 at 11:01 am | Permalink

      WHY do they get out of bed!?

  2. Posted April 2, 2012 at 10:46 am | Permalink

    If only George Carlin was alive to see what words they’re banning now. (I notice his 7 words are not on the list)

  3. Sarah Lawson
    Posted April 2, 2012 at 10:47 am | Permalink

    I thought you weren’t going to go in for an April Fool’s joke this year?

    • rodgerma
      Posted April 2, 2012 at 10:54 am | Permalink

      That’s my thought exactly; Gotta be an April Fool’s joke. Apparently not.
      Yet another reason for atheists to be angry about….

      • Marella
        Posted April 2, 2012 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

        Awesome speech, absolutely brilliant.

  4. komponist1
    Posted April 2, 2012 at 10:49 am | Permalink

    I wasn’t aware that New York City had been annexed by Tennessee. Bet they won’t ban “corporation”!

    • Filippo
      Posted April 2, 2012 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

      Or human “resource” or human “capital.”

      Schools should be renamed “human resource development centers.” Isn’t that the corporate tyrant attitude toward these prospective wage slaves – I mean employees?

  5. Jim Jones
    Posted April 2, 2012 at 10:52 am | Permalink

    “Good Lord, the degree to which children are protected these days!”

    We used to take pocket knives to school. But I am very, very old.

    • dogugotw
      Posted April 2, 2012 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

      AND played mumblety peg (well, to be truthful, that was in Boy Scouts). Then again, I’m now called ‘lefty’.

  6. bonetired
    Posted April 2, 2012 at 10:52 am | Permalink

    and as far as the other words … 90% of them to be found in your average soap opera….

  7. bonetired
    Posted April 2, 2012 at 10:55 am | Permalink

    And as for the other words … the kids will get 90% of them off your average soap …

  8. Dominic
    Posted April 2, 2012 at 10:57 am | Permalink

    You are not a curmudgeon!

    I have a great idea – the children can go into school, face the front and sit quietly for 7 hours or so, then go home!

    Can they say thunder lizards?

    • Dominic
      Posted April 2, 2012 at 11:00 am | Permalink

      Sorry – terrible lizard! Richard Owen is spinning in his grave…

  9. Posted April 2, 2012 at 11:04 am | Permalink

    Good grief!

    I agree, Jerry: Children are increasingly mollycoddled — to the detriment of their emotional and intellectual growth.

    What’s the age of the children these standardized tests are aimed at?

    /@

    • Nom de Plume
      Posted April 2, 2012 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

      I agree, Jerry: Children are increasingly mollycoddled

      While I agree with your general point, I’m not sure “mollycoddled” is the appropriate term. I would hate to be a child in today’s world–my every move orchestrated and scrutinized, my every waking moment rigidly scheduled. Reading choices monitored, viewing choices monitored, play choices monitored. Then there’s the unspeakable horror of having your life shared with the wider world via social media.

      And all of this is to say nothing of what the transition to adulthood must be like when you’ve been so severely sheltered for your first 18 years. No, I wouldn’t trade places with today’s kids for anything.

      • Posted April 2, 2012 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

        I think I used it correctly: “treat (someone) very indulgently or protectively.” [NOAD; my emphasis]

        /@

        • Nom de Plume
          Posted April 2, 2012 at 5:33 pm | Permalink

          True enough. I guess I always took the “indulgent” part as the dominant meaning.

  10. eric
    Posted April 2, 2012 at 11:09 am | Permalink

    A poster OgreMkV had some arguments in defense of the list over on Ed Brayton’s blog. Link. His background experience appears to be in designing such tests.

    I do not necessarily agree with his positions, but did find them a worthwhile read.

  11. Dermot C
    Posted April 2, 2012 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    I assume Prof. Weinburg has been misquoted; the Latin root of ‘education’ is to out. As an ageing teacher, I bore kids for a living and I resent the implication that they should not have to suffer tedium and the quiet desperation of waiting for the bell. It’s good life-training.

    • Dermot C
      Posted April 2, 2012 at 11:25 am | Permalink

      doh…’to lead out’…

      • Posted April 2, 2012 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

        With what subject matter do you bore children?

        • Dermot C
          Posted April 3, 2012 at 1:54 am | Permalink

          French: ergo, not much opportunity to quote Hard Times, “Child, define a horse!”

    • Don
      Posted April 2, 2012 at 11:27 am | Permalink

      The meaning is “to lead out,” no? To lead out of the darkness of ignorance and superstition into the light of knowledge and reason.

  12. Posted April 2, 2012 at 11:19 am | Permalink

    I thought at first this was another April Fool’s joke…

    Really this is unbelievably stupid – shameful for me, as I live in the State of New York.

  13. Michael Fisher
    Posted April 2, 2012 at 11:29 am | Permalink

    Homelessness? Is that an attempt to play down/hide the problem? SOME STATS

  14. Posted April 2, 2012 at 11:40 am | Permalink

    Homes with swimming pools.

    So much for the Streisand Effect.

  15. Posted April 2, 2012 at 11:43 am | Permalink

    To reinforce this, the children should be made to read Victorian novels. Mind you, I’m not sure that the bowdlerized “A Christmas Carol” will be as good as the original story.

    • Veroxitatis
      Posted April 2, 2012 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

      Nicholas Nickelby and Dotheboys School would be a finer read.

      • Dermot C
        Posted April 2, 2012 at 4:58 pm | Permalink

        As the Dickensophile father of an adopted daughter, I find this a tricky question. At 11, Josie is simply not up to reading the great man, but I have found a way in for her, because she loves the BBC adaptations, especially of the novels which follow the life story of kids: David Copperfield, Great Expectations, even Little Dorrit, with the pretty and good young heroine.

        I think, as adults we over-estimate the reading abilities of kids; Dickens, let’s face it, is for adults. I tried reading ‘A Christmas Carol’ to Josie when she was nine, but, despite the fact that she loves the story, she found it hard-going. Josie is below average academic ability, but all I want to do is plant a seed in her, so that maybe in her adult life she will one day think, “You know, I think I’ll have a go at reading ‘Great Expectations'” – 600 pages or more?

        As a parent, that is all I want do; at the age of 51, I now know that my most influential teacher was a chap who had hopeless classroom control but was patient, kind, gentle and interested in everything; he still ‘leads me out’ even though he is probably now dead. Education is like a pebble cast into a pond, contra the ruminations of the NYC Education Authorities, rippling through a whole lifetime. My Latin teacher jolted me with ideas and concepts I found extremely disconcerting, surprising and fascinating. And that is what a good educator should do.

        • Posted April 2, 2012 at 5:13 pm | Permalink

          “Dickens, let’s face it, is for adults.”

          I humbly disagree. Dickens is for children. Trollope and Eliot are for adults.

          • Dermot C
            Posted April 2, 2012 at 5:22 pm | Permalink

            No need to be humble, Llwddythlw, or is that a reference to Uriah Heep? We’ll agree to disagree!

  16. Posted April 2, 2012 at 11:50 am | Permalink

    How can there be people that insane? I just can’t get to grips with it.

  17. Woof
    Posted April 2, 2012 at 11:57 am | Permalink

    Since when is it the government’s duty to insulate people from reality?

    • steve oberski
      Posted April 2, 2012 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

      Cast your mind back to the current Republican primaries or the last election.

    • Tim
      Posted April 2, 2012 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

      Ever since the entire political process has depended on voters ignoring reality.

    • Posted April 2, 2012 at 5:47 pm | Permalink

      Every time they want to promote an insanely stupid bill.

  18. thebat137
    Posted April 2, 2012 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

    I think the angst about this list is a little overblown. These topics aren’t being banned from schools, they’re just not supposed to be included in high-stakes standardized tests, because if you include questions which cause some subset of test-takers to have a strong negative emotional response, you won’t get a fair measurement of the skills the test is trying to measure.

    This kind of list doesn’t even mean that evolution can’t ever appear on a standardized test. For example, biology tests at the appropriate level could still discuss evolution. All they mean is that a reading comprehension test shouldn’t include a passage about Charles Darwin, and should instead use topics that won’t be distracting in and of themselves.

    The bottom line is, this is just about good measurement protocols (eliminating extraneous factors). It’s nothing to do with political correctness. Aren’t we supposed to all be scientifically literate sorts here?

    • NoAstronomer
      Posted April 2, 2012 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

      Well said.

    • eric
      Posted April 2, 2012 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

      All they mean is that a reading comprehension test shouldn’t include a passage about Charles Darwin, and should instead use topics that won’t be distracting in and of themselves.

      The point is, a passage about Charles Darwin shouldn’t be distracting in and of itself. If it is, your reading comprehension skills are below par. Part of what reading comprehension is, is the ability to separate yourself from the subject. High School seniors who cannot read a passage about Darwin and analyze its sentence structure or the literary meaning because of their personal animus towards Darwin arguably don’t have strong reading comprehension skills. They should fail that particular question.

      The same thing goes for math and swimming pools – part of skill in mathematics is being able to identify the relevant parts of an english language sentence and translate those relevant parts into a mathematical equation. If you can’t calculate the volume of a big hole in the ground because the question called it a backyard swimming pool, and that freaks you out, then arguably your ability to identify the relevant parts of that English language sentence (and dispense with the irrelevant parts) needs more work.

      Look, I am not saying we should intentionally make the questions emotionally provocative in order to make the test tougher. We shouldn’t. I agree there should probably be a review of questions and the unnecessarily provocative ones changed. But practically none of the words in the list strike me as ‘intentionally provocative.’ They are normal subjects of typical conversations. And we should not censor normal conversational topics off of high school senior tests because being able to do math, science, and literary criticism of normal everyday subjects is what we are supposed to be testing.

      • thebat137
        Posted April 2, 2012 at 5:29 pm | Permalink

        Sure, evolution *shouldn’t* be a trigger for kids, but if it is, it’s the responsibility of the test creators to correct for that possibility. The *teachers* are the ones who need to be working to teach kids about evolution. The test creators are just trying to measure particular skills, and if they don’t get a good measure of reading comprehension because they choose their questions poorly, they’re not doing their jobs.

        • Tim
          Posted April 2, 2012 at 5:49 pm | Permalink

          You’re assuming that it is useful and meaningful to separate knowledge into finely partitioned boxes. As a teacher of chemistry at the university level, I find that one of the major impediments university students have is their inability to use what they’ve learned in one subject when learning others. Freshman students come to chemistry professors all the time puzzled about why they’re having trouble with the “mathematics” of general chemistry. Inevitably, after they’ve explained that they did well in algebra, I end up asking “How did you do on the ‘story problems'”?

          When we get students in college we need to assume that a “A” in algebra means they can apply algebra to problem solving that includes ‘distracting’ information, not just apply algorithms to ‘do math’. We need to assume that reading comprehension includes the ability to deal with occsionally “upsetting’ or ‘distracting’ information. The use of even standardized tests is limited if the “reading comprehension” doesn’t include realistic selections of what the student will be reading! Bowlderizing reading comprehension tests just limits the meaningfulness of the scores.

          • Anne C. Hanna
            Posted April 2, 2012 at 6:14 pm | Permalink

            Look, I agree that treating standardized testing as the be-all and end-all of education is crap, but if you’re trying to figure out the weak points in a particular kid’s education, or in the educational system as a whole, you’ve still gotta have some way to evaluate skills along different axes. And if one of those axes is whether the kids can read a paragraph and extract the main ideas, then you’re not going to get a very meaningful result if that paragraph is about a topic which is incredibly distracting for some kids and neutral for others. You’re not actually separating out the different components of each kid’s educational deficits or attainments very well in that case. If instead of measuring reading comprehension, your goal is to do an examination of what topics kids are having difficulty with (for example, to see if kids are having problems with evolution), then it’s important to put in sections explicitly devoted to those different topics, but it just contaminates and complicates your data if you’re mixing together controversial topics *and* reading comprehension in the same question.

            Think of this like PCA or eigendecompostion — these tests are trying to project the students’ overall performance vectors onto a variety of axes that have been deemed by test creators to be important, which means that for each section of the test you’ve got to remove all the the components along other variational axes. If you want to argue that the particular axes selected are poorly chosen, or that we need to measure things along more axes, that’s a different discussion. But there really shouldn’t be an argument about the basic fact that in order to see the population distribution of one particular quantity you need to eliminate other sources of variation in your results. Again, I ask, isn’t this a science website?

            • Tim
              Posted April 2, 2012 at 6:53 pm | Permalink

              For many years, we had a PhD committee system that required a “graduate council representative” (GCR) to sit on PhD exams in areas completely outside our areas of expertise and I’ve sat through several education department prelims and defenses. When I read your comments concerning eigendecompositions in light of those experiences I can’t help but chuckle. You don’t seriously think this list of banned words has anything to do with the analysis of multivariate data, do you? This list came out of the sausage grinder of political expediency – nothing more.

    • Posted April 2, 2012 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

      I was about to say something similar:

      At the risk of being a curmudgeon’s curmudgeon, isn’t there a bit of overkill here? The words are not being banned from education, only from standardised tests. I think the idea is that when kids are under the stress of being tested, they don’t want to expose them to additional and unpredictible other stresses from concepts that may influence some kids differently from others.

      For example if kids were required to write something about houses with swimming pools, those who live in such houses would be able to write much more easily and knowledgeably about them than those who live in houses or apartments or slums or paper bags under bridges that don’t have swimming pools.

      (Although I gather the standardised tests are much more likely to involve ticking boxes than writing essays.)

      • eric
        Posted April 2, 2012 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

        Part of math and reading comprehension skills is being able to handle a broad range of problems. The narrower the range of problems you can handle, the less skill you arguably have. So these tests should not just be testing for ‘depth on most ideal application,’ they should also be testing for breadth of application.

        OgreMkV and others mentioned that one reason to do these tests is to identify areas where further education is needed – i.e. areas where the student needs more help. It seems to me that to reach this goal, one should intentionally ask about a wide variety of subjects, because that is the only way you will discover if the student has a mental or emotional hang-up in applying their general skills to certain subjects. If a student can handle math problems parsed in terms of centimeters but not in terms of cents, this is something we should want to know, yes? But to do that, you’re going to need to ask math questions in terms both centimeters and cents, yes?

        • thebat137
          Posted April 2, 2012 at 5:31 pm | Permalink

          If you’re trying to identify problems with evolution education, you put that on the biology section of the test. If you’re trying to identify problems with reading comprehension, you’d be a moron to introduce the complicating factor of evolution controversies into the mix. That’s just bad science.

      • Dominic
        Posted April 2, 2012 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

        Box ticking is not a test. Emphasis on test.

      • jmckaskle
        Posted April 2, 2012 at 9:38 pm | Permalink

        These days in grade school, a significant portion of time in the class room is devoted to teaching and reviewing for standardized tests. Standardized test scores mean the difference between a school getting funding and a school being shut down.

        • Posted April 3, 2012 at 6:11 am | Permalink

          As the parent of a 3rd grader, I have not seen this to be the case.
          Yes, students do take tests that look like the standardized tests, but my daughter’s teacher teaches to the standards* for the grade, not the test.

          I will agree that this is anecdotal, but I think this is overblown. I am also back in university for an education degree. We are learning to use the standards to develop our lessons and assessments.

          *The state standards. The tests assess the student’s understanding of the standards.

    • eric
      Posted April 2, 2012 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

      Just a slight continuation, but I see actions like the NYC SB’s as a reason why university professors constantly complain that their incoming students lack critical thinking skills.

      Being able to think critically is, in part, an ability to take analytical skills you’ve practiced on one or a few narrow subjects and apply them broadly, to other areas and topics. To take an extreme example, if someone could only analyze the literary content of Shakespeare, but no other writing, that person could not be said to have learned critical literary analysis.

      The same goes here; the ability to apply one’s math and literary skills to unfamiliar and uncomfortable subjects is part of the purpose of learning those skills in the first place. The narrower the subject list on which you can apply your skills, the less skilled you are.

      • Dominic
        Posted April 2, 2012 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

        I very much agree with that. Critical thinking is lacking in many undergraduate students not because they are dim, but because they never think sideways. Lateral I mean. I often tell them that they will have to take what they know of topic A & apply it to topic B because there is no simple article that tells you about A+B.

        • thebat137
          Posted April 2, 2012 at 5:36 pm | Permalink

          Sure, sure, but it’s not really clear that you can even get at critical thinking with a standardized test to begin with. All we can really expect from standardized tests is to check for very basic skills. Relying on them as the be-all and end-all of measuring a student’s performance is a huge problem in modern education, but it’s got nothing to do with whether this kind of list makes sense in the context of the kind of measurements that standardized tests *can* reasonably be used for.

          • eric
            Posted April 2, 2012 at 6:49 pm | Permalink

            Of what use is a basic skill that the student can’t apply when the wrong word is used in a sentence?

            Does any consumer of test results care about such fragile skills? I doubt employers do. I doubt university applications departments do. I doubt professors do when they’re looking for research assistants or potential grad students.

            Eliminating such words seems to me to have ONE purpose, and only ONE group is positively served by it: the school district. They maximize their students’ test scores, making themselves look better. But there is no real benefit to the student in doing this. It arguably sets them up for failure, because when they face those tougher questions in college, or those tougher situations on the job, they (and their employers/professors) are going to wonder why they aren’t living up to the skills they showed on the test.

            The military has an adage that applies here: train the way you fight, and fight the way you train. Same goes here. I think the best thing we could do for our students is to test to the sorts of life-material they will encounter. Do it on enough standardized tests, and they may lose the sensitivity that is holding them back.

          • Posted April 2, 2012 at 9:40 pm | Permalink

            Many years ago, I took the GMAT test when it was entirely multiple choice. This was a standardized test used by many business schools as part of their entry requirement. As I recall, some parts of the test were fairly good tests of reading comprehension combined with critical thinking.

    • Veroxitatis
      Posted April 2, 2012 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

      -10.

      • Veroxitatis
        Posted April 2, 2012 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

        Oops! That was meant for the bat.

        • thebat137
          Posted April 2, 2012 at 5:40 pm | Permalink

          Oh yeah? Well minus infinity to you! So there. :-P

        • Anne C. Hanna
          Posted April 2, 2012 at 5:44 pm | Permalink

          By the way, thanks for making me realize that after Loginpocalypse I apparently failed to configure my stupid profile to show my real name.

    • Dominic
      Posted April 2, 2012 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

      Oh dear, I find that I disagree with you completely! The idea that you could get tests that offer a level playing field is daft. It cannot be achieved. Children vary, abilities vary, home background varies…

      Why isn’t classical music on the list? Surely that is either unfair to those who do not know any or biased in favour of those who do? The idea that politics should not be mentioned in a test, in a country where the media are so consumed by not being in tests is curious! What on earth DO these tests contain?! Are they so frightened of treading on people’s toes? Teaching children resilience is better, how to cope with disappointment and failure – allowing them to fail – will make them better students, This is interesting –

      http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2008/sep/30/teaching.primaryschools

      Test children on what they have been taught of course. But stretch them. Surely the whole point of testing (not education, testing)is to discriminate – to find out where you are in relation to others. What happens to you when you go to a job interview? Do they discriminate? Of course they do. Life is all about competition – that is a key element of natural selection & you will not avoid it by brushing it under the carpet.

      Sorry – I was lurching into rant!

      • Posted April 2, 2012 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

        “classical music” — or, indeed, mediæval, baroque, romantic, Twentieth-Century, modern and contemporary music.

        Similarly, how broadly is “Rock-and-Roll music” defined? Would that include reggae, ska, prog rock, glam rock, Nordic gothic symphonic metal, &c., &c.

        And what about jazz?

        /@

      • thebat137
        Posted April 2, 2012 at 5:38 pm | Permalink

        You can’t make *any* social science measurement perfect, because people are complicated, but you can still do your best. I’m shocked to hear people arguing on a science website that one shouldn’t at least make a serious effort to eliminate confounding factors from a measurement, just because they know they can never make the measurement perfect.

        • Tim
          Posted April 2, 2012 at 6:08 pm | Permalink

          If the “confounding factors” really do affect the measurement, then how useful is the measurement? When students need to apply the knowledge one is purporting to measure, and when the students’ subsequent teachers are relying on the measurement to tell them what the student “knows”, they will all need a measurement that tells them something about the students’ abilities in the presence of the confounding factors.

          • Anne C. Hanna
            Posted April 2, 2012 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

            If you want to measure the effects of confounding factors, then you need to have a baseline without confounders and a separate measure of each confounder, especially because different students will likely have different confounders. You don’t just throw the baseline skill and a mere handful (since there’s no way you’re gonna have room for all possible confounders on one test) of the many likely potential confounders together into one pile and claim you’re making a meaningful measurement. You might just happen to have chosen confounders which push every single one of student A’s buttons and mess hir up completely, but which fly safely past student B with no impact, even though student B has some pretty serious issues that would have shown up if you’d happened to pick a different random set of confounders.

            If you want clean data, you get rid of *all* the confounders first, and then if you want to know about specific confounders, you measure those specific confounders explicitly and separately. What you *don’t* do is just throw a random, ill-considered mess full of poorly-identified landmines at the test-takers. Why is this controversial on a science website?

          • Beachscriber
            Posted April 4, 2012 at 3:36 am | Permalink

            Anne, I was going to make some comment about political rectitude or correctumnus but then I read your very sensible and insightful comments throughout. Tim is clearly just confounding the general with the specific but I’m sure you’d nonetheless sympathise with those who find it sad to see “evolution” on the list. It really shouldn’t be a controversial matter to start with and one is tempted to just use it and let those poor kids who get side-tracked on it be damned. I’m sure Prof. Coyne would consider anything less “accomodationist”.

            • Anne C. Hanna
              Posted April 12, 2012 at 10:07 pm | Permalink

              Yeah, evolution really *shouldn’t* be controversial, and it pisses me off quite a lot that it is, so I’ve got a lot of sympathy for seeing its inclusion on this list as bullshit. I just think we’ve gotta step back and make sure we understand where the list came from and why it’s being used before we go on the war path about this.

              I should note that from the stuff that’s been posted here since I last read these comments, I do see a valid point on the anti-list side. I’ve been arguing that there are perfectly good reasons from the testing science side to have a list of topics that aren’t appropriate for inclusion outside of specific subject evaluations (*not* banned words — it’s misleading to represent the list this way, as some have done). However, it is certainly true that a lot of state education policies are made more on the basis of politics than on the basis of sound science, so it may be that this list just came out of some committee’s collective offense-averse posterior rather than from good studies and reasoned extrapolation from those studies.

              That said, we don’t really know which of these two possibilities, or what mix of them, is actually an accurate description of what happened during the creation of this list. So those who say they “know” that the list all just a bunch of PC bullshit are assuming too much, just as I may have been too free with the assumption that, since there *is* pretty solid testing science on the subject of distractor topics, that must be where the list came from.

              So I still stand by my original position that the outrage over this has been premature and ill-considered. Let’s see some actual information (rather than wild speculation) on the process by which this list was derived and the impact it’s had on education and testing results and *then* decide whether to be outraged, rather than just mocking and denouncing the list without trying to understand it.

  19. Posted April 2, 2012 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

    Never in my life have I seen such stupidity. Are legislators and appointees buying votes and favoritism from evangelicals and conservatives?

  20. Veroxitatis
    Posted April 2, 2012 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

    Incredible!!! I assume no kids are reading Mark Twain anymore in the US. Are they reading anything?
    I just can’t believe that people are employed and paid to dream up such nonsense.

  21. MadScientist
    Posted April 2, 2012 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

    They can’t ban books anymore so they’re just banning the words that go into ‘em. The Captain in the Hunting of the Snark must have come from New York’s future – where else could he have gotten his maritime charts which were such perfect and absolute blanks?

  22. Filippo
    Posted April 2, 2012 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

    “Florida avoids the phrases that use “Hurricane” or “Wildfires,” according to a statement by the New York City Department of Education.”

    For starters, wonder if it’s OK in Florida to use “Typhoon” (Western Pacific) or “Cyclone” (Indian Ocean)? Should “Mountain” not be used in Florida since students, not having mountains, would somehow feel deprived?

  23. Filippo
    Posted April 2, 2012 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

    ” . . . avoid certain words if the “the topic . . . has been overused in standardized tests or textbooks and is thus overly familiar and/or boring to students . . . .”

    “Boring”? “BORING”!?!

    Verily, at all costs students must not be exposed to the least risk of being “bored.”

    Students need to create that bundle of skills necessary for entertaining themselves. There will come a day when there will no longer be adults around on whom entitled adolescents can presume to impose the onerous duty of entertaining them. They will have to bloody entertain themselves.

  24. Rudi
    Posted April 2, 2012 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

    There is no such thing as a “fundamemtalist” child. Anyone who thinks there is really, really needs to start using their brain a bit more.

  25. Posted April 2, 2012 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

    Prof, I’d like to point out that you should have mentioned that not only would the words evolution and dinosaur be offensive to the fundies, but that the list also includes a ban on Christmas and other religious holiday words would also be offensive and we’ll probably hear this as (selective) proof of Obama and the “liberals” attack on religion.

    Of course, we could avoid this kind of soft-headed silliness by simply banning the use of standardized tests, at least until the Koch brothers can manufacture standardized children, sans opinions, ideas, culture, and ethnicity.

    on a happier note, my Kansas City school district looks almost ok by comparison.

  26. Posted April 2, 2012 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

    And this is why I’m not sure if I want children.

    “Mollycoddling” is an understatement. Their children will be so damn sheltered that they will NEVER grow up, and so when the harsh realities of life hit them, what are they going to do… kill themselves?

    I wonder if this was dreamed up by the same incompetent morons who decided that competition sports were bad for schoolchildren because “there are losers” and “losing is bad for self-esteem”. Oh boohoo! If they don’t learn it now, when the hell are they going to learn it? I thought that’s what school was for?

    It’s one thing to be against bullying… as someone who severely bullied myself, bullying is wrong and needs to be stamped out (for the record, ignoring it does. Not. Work. I can say that from personal experience).

    But to ban words from standardized tests because they might offend the students? Please forgive my language, but if they’re offended by the word “evolution”, then fuck them. They *deserve* to fail that test.

    • Posted April 2, 2012 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

      “as someone who WAS severely bullied myself”…

      Horrible accidental omission, there. Sorry…

      • Tim
        Posted April 2, 2012 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

        It’s OK, it brought to mind Jim Carrey in the bathroom scene of Liar Liar: I’m kickin’ my ass!

  27. Posted April 2, 2012 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

    Actually, I’m quite glad to see that ‘politics’ is banned now.

    And I also kinda like “In-depth discussions of sports that require prior knowledge”, although I’d like to see that broadened to ANY discussion involving sports.

    And what’s wrong with removing ‘war’ and ‘weapons’ from our vocabulary?

    There’s only one glaring omission: CHEESE!! (*hates cheese*)

    • Posted April 2, 2012 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

      Why isn’t “meat” on the list? Think about those poor sensitive vegetarian and vegan kiddies.

      Or even just “bacon” (esp. not in combination with cheese) or “beef”?

      /@

      • JohnnieCanuck
        Posted April 3, 2012 at 2:39 am | Permalink

        Presumably because the analysis the test designers did showed it didn’t distort the results to mention meat.

        • Posted April 3, 2012 at 2:51 am | Permalink

          “the analysis the test designers did” — Is there any evidence that they did? (Or was that sarcasm? :-o)

          /@

        • eric
          Posted April 3, 2012 at 5:21 am | Permalink

          Yes, joining Ant – I would love to see actual evidence that the list was derived from some empirical study that showed using words x, y, and z does in fact lower test scores.

          Given the size of the list, I am highly skeptical it exists. If the list had a handful of words, I could see it coming out of a study. 50+? No data set of NYC test results gave that granular a result.

    • Posted April 2, 2012 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

      By tradition, politics, women, religion and work are not permissible subjects for discussion in a British officers’ mess. So if the ban on work must include discussion of war, bloodshed and weapons. Still, they are permitted to talk about houses with swimming pools and evolution.

      • Posted April 2, 2012 at 5:20 pm | Permalink

        Delete the “if”. It was copied over from a prior version.

  28. Dave
    Posted April 2, 2012 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

    So I suppose “fuck me!” is banned as well?

    • Marta
      Posted April 3, 2012 at 7:13 am | Permalink

      Only in grades K-3. After that, you’re good to go.

  29. Piero
    Posted April 2, 2012 at 6:02 pm | Permalink

    Holy fucking shit! have these people never read Orwell? Don’t they realize they are in fact trying to construct a form of newspeak?

    Evolution happens; people fuck; homelessness exists; nuclear weapons are still there, ready to be used; death and disease are commonplace. What do these morons expect? That by banning the words the things they refer to will disappear? I hate fucking platonists.

    I’m not suggesting that kids should be exposed to the worst kind of violent or pornographic content: what I am saying is that the words are innocuous when compared to their graphic counterpart. As familiarity breeds contempt, being daily exposed to scenes of atrocities numbs our capacity to be horrified. For example, films such as “Inglorious Basterds” (or anything by Tarantino, whom I believe to be a deeply disturbed person), “The Texas chainsaw massacre” and similar ones should be censored. Yet the Church’s influence makes it much more likely that a perfectly normal, loving, tender sex scene will be cut instead of a graphic scen of a man smashing another man’s head with a bat. What kind of world are we living in, for fuck’s sake?

  30. Posted April 2, 2012 at 6:30 pm | Permalink

    I’m impressed that the NYC Department of Education has anticipated the feelings of Jehovah’s Witnesses, but they’ve failed to anticipate my angst at reading the words “pork”, “ham” and “shellfish” or indeed the occurrence of the word “meat” immediately followed by “milk”.

    • Posted April 2, 2012 at 6:56 pm | Permalink

      Indeed, it should be cookies before milk, aaargh these bureaucrats!

  31. Posted April 2, 2012 at 6:54 pm | Permalink

    I could understand obviously strong subjects such as abuse, violence, death, etc, but pepperoni? Really? That’s following a slippery slope and drowning the entire concept. If I was bitten badly, mauled even, by a vicious Chihuahua at age seven, then “See spot run” is going to cause me emotional distress. Do we omit all mention of dogs or pets, especially if there are students currently mourning their beloved pet bunny rabbit? It seems a foolish practice to reduce the material from which to craft stories for reading comprehension than simply to provide an option to opt-out of the story in general if the student finds the subject matter offensive enough to affect their comprehension of the subject.

    To alleviate any variables that could cause distress from anything from allergies to socio-economic shortcomings, you pretty much have to gut the English language. I’m sure there are probably more peanut allergies out there than people offended by deli-meat so why isn’t “peanuts” on this list? What would we be left with? I mean, is there at least anecdotal evidence of someone saying “I could have gotten that scholarship to Harvard, but those damned reading questions brought up Rap Music and I just hate it so much that it threw off my game for the entire test!”? I can just imagine the journalist explaining to a potential employer how they have a very high reading comprehension, but only as long as they don’t have to read anything about Dinosaurs. I can probably predict with some certainty the result of that interview.

    What is concerning about this supposedly “scientific” practice is that they aren’t forthcoming in their reasoning for each banned term, meaning that the selection was not based on any particular study but rather on the whimsy of the NYC DoE (a bureaucratic establishment that has taken a lot of heat for too many “closed doors” decisions such as this) . I’m all for evidence based decisions in government, but it does not appear as though this was one of them.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted April 3, 2012 at 2:36 am | Permalink

      “…those damned reading questions brought up Rap Music and I just hate it so much that it threw off my game for the entire test!”

      Well, I can certainly imagine me saying that.

      Rock ‘n’ Roll, on the other hand, certainly if in conjunction with sex’n’drugs, would probably … cause me to fail for the opposite reason. ;)

      But seriously, the premise of the list is fairly daft, and its realisation even dafter. I expect they had one of those idiotic ‘brainstorming’ sessions with a whiteboard and just wrote down whatever anybody came up with on the spur of the moment. Oddly, I notice abortion, guns and atheism aren’t on it…

  32. jmckaskle
    Posted April 2, 2012 at 9:42 pm | Permalink

    The good news is that the ban list has been revoked due to the negative reaction recieved. And rightly so. Sorry, standardized testing experts. The banned word list is a stupid idea and doesn’t produce better tests and smarter students.

    http://www.nytimes.com/schoolbook/2012/04/02/city-revokes-testing-word-ban/

    • Posted April 3, 2012 at 12:43 am | Permalink

      I had seen this in a few blogs, and wasn’t sure how accurate it was, for a non-US resident, the idea of this list just sounded like one of those media making things up stories.

      Reading your link, the scary part is it says “The restrictions have been in place for years”

  33. Posted April 2, 2012 at 11:30 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on urbanperegrines and commented:
    Stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid.

  34. bad Jim
    Posted April 3, 2012 at 1:36 am | Permalink

    Are so many otherwise astute commenters unaware that just mentioning race or gender can have an enormous effect on students’ performance on a test, or do you simply not care?

    It’s a sad fact that there are enormous disparities in the things that can be taken for granted in the student population. A standardized test which generates different results for members of different socioeconomic groups because of trigger words wouldn’t be a very good test.

    It’s probably true that you’d get better-prepared college students if you simply excluded people from the “wrong” backgrounds. There are very good reasons not to, though.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted April 3, 2012 at 2:38 am | Permalink

      But race and gender *aren’t on the list*.

      • JohnnieCanuck
        Posted April 3, 2012 at 3:27 am | Permalink

        If the words ‘race’ or ‘gender’ appearing in a test do not by themselves provoke some students to perform poorly, then there is no reason to put them on the list.

        Theoretically the words were determined by analysis of previously given test results while looking for this trigger effect.

        If in practice, they were arrived at by committees just tossing things into a requirements document, then it’s just whargarble.

  35. JohnnieCanuck
    Posted April 3, 2012 at 3:16 am | Permalink

    Reading comprehension. So many of you are failing at it.

    The reporters and bloggers who first jumped on the existence of this list failed to understand the point. They invited misunderstanding by their readers and so many were only too happy to do so.

    People from the standardized test field have set the record straight by commenting on multiple blogs that I have seen. Still the miscomprehension continues.

    Lets put it this way. If I were a teacher looking at the results of a test I had given and I noticed that a significant subset had done poorly only after encountering a scenario in a particular question, I might question the validity of the results.

    Would anyone here consider it important if the subset of affected students were predominantly of one gender or ethnic origin? Apparently this effect has been accepted as real in the world of standardized test makers. Perhaps there is a controversy here, I wouldn’t know. Perhaps such lists are actually pointless and it is just an exercise in a foolish attempt at political correctness. Then again, perhaps avoiding such trigger words allows for better test results.

    What this is not about is banning these words from ever being used in classes. Nor does the list make these words into forbidden subjects.

    I fault the bloggers for not clarifying the issue and letting the tempest continue in the teapot.

    • Veroxitatis
      Posted April 3, 2012 at 5:05 am | Permalink

      No, with respect, I do not fail to understand the point, nor, I think, do many contributors. Were word association tests to be conducted on every pupil prior to setting the tests it is almost certain that a great many more words would need to be deleted from use for that purpose. I myself, for reasons I will not elaborate on had psychological difficulties with the word, or more likely, the concept of “mother”. I should not have expected any test to take cognisance of that even had the authority been aware of the problem.
      Educators, particularly those not at the teaching coalface, often display a marked ignorance of the ability of children to overcome handicaps and show resilience in the face of adversity. Perhaps it might assist were they to keep uppermost in their minds the wise words of Sammy Davis Jnr. when asked for his golf handicap – “I’m a one-eyed, negro Jew”.
      They might benefit also from reading or re-reading a book by Melanie Phillips – “All must have prizes”.

    • eric
      Posted April 3, 2012 at 5:34 am | Permalink

      Johhny, do you seriously think they arrived at a list of 50+ negatively-impacting terms using an empirical study? 50????

      An empirical study might have turned up a few terms that have significant impact, but I think the sheer size of the list is a good indication that the NYC SB isn’t basing their results on any empirical study.

      Interestingly, nobody who defends the list seems to be concerned with eliminating terms that might artificially inflate scores. But if you were truly concerned about measuring kid’s capabilities, you’d advocate looking for those and eliminating them, too.

      I maintain what I said earlier – the primary benefactor of such an exercise is the school board, not the kids. The school board benefits when scores go up, even if its because the test is less realistic than it should be. And they likely get less complaints from parents when they remove such words. That’s why they do it.

    • Occam
      Posted April 3, 2012 at 8:18 am | Permalink

      If I were a teacher looking at the results of a test I had given and I noticed that a significant subset had done poorly only after encountering a scenario in a particular question, I might question the validity of the results.

      Oy gestalt!
      If a combination of words, or even a ‘scenario’ if that’s not too exalted a term, were enough to trigger poor results in a subset of students, it’s not the ‘validity of the results’ I’d question. It’s the education imparted to those students — or deficiencies therein. I’d also question their social and cultural upbringing, inevitably including religion.

  36. DicePlayGod
    Posted April 3, 2012 at 10:03 am | Permalink

    Evolution, Religion, even “Homes with swimming pools”, but NOT Atheism!

    SCORE!!

  37. eedwardgrey69
    Posted April 3, 2012 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

    “The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of IngSoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible. It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought — that is, a thought diverging from the principles of IngSoc — should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words.”

    1984
    (NOT an instruction manual!)

  38. Piero
    Posted April 4, 2012 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

    Pepperoni? Pepperoni? Im’ sure Jerry is doing it on purpose just to piss me off; the word is “peperoni”, single p in the middle. Which stands to reason, since “pepper” in Italian is just “pepe”, not “peppe”. Not all Italian words carry double consonants, you know?

    By the way, my Italian private lesons are dirt cheap (but the plane ticket to Viña del Mar, Chile, is not included).

    • Filippo
      Posted April 4, 2012 at 4:34 pm | Permalink

      Just reflecting a bit on Italian, which I only know bits and pieces of from bearing down and with brute force memorizing a half-bushel basket of Italian and Neapolitan songs.

      Re: “ce” ( pronounced “che”), and “che” (pronounced “keh”).

      Have always been a bit fascinated by that.

      Also: “cello” (“chello”).

      “Cielo” (“chee-ehl-lo”), as opposed to the Spanish, “See-eh-lo.”

      “Cognoscenti.” In the U.S. we hear “Cog-no-sen-tee.” But in Italian it would be “Co-no-shin(?)-tee. (Is there an “h” sound?)

      But, I gather one definitely hears the “g” – but not the “h” – in “spaghetti”, eh?

      In Italian, Spain is “Espagne,” with the “g” silent.

      Finally, do I correctly understand that in Argentina there is a language/dialect called “Lunfardo,” some combo of Espanol and Italiano?

      Muchos Gracias, Mille Grazie!

  39. Tyle Stelzig
    Posted April 8, 2012 at 9:02 am | Permalink

    I don’t think Sam Weinburg’s comments (in the last paragraph of the post) are fair. It isn’t fair to equate avoidance of certain words on a standardized test with restriction of the scope of the curriculum.

    It also might not be quite right to say that the words in question are to be avoided “because they offend sensibilities” as the post suggests. My understanding is that they are to be avoided because they create bias in test scores, rendering tests that contain such words less fair and accurate as measures of test-takers’ cognitive abilities.

    There might still be reasons to avoid such mollycoddling, but if so I don’t think this post provided such reasons. I don’t think it was a fair post.


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