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Austin Cline

NYC Wants to Ban the Word 'Evolution' From Tests

By April 9, 2012

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Human Evolution - Skeletons
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I wouldn't have expected New York City to be a place where teaching evolution would be such a problem, but apparently it is. The very word "evolution" is on a list of words New York City Department of Education wants to entirely eliminate from standards tests out of concern that it might "upset" some students.

Because, you know, some Christians get so freaked out when confronted with the real world. And schools should never do that to those precious snow flakes.

The word "dinosaur" made the hit list because dinosaurs suggest evolution which creationists might not like, WCBS 880′s Marla Diamond reported. "Halloween" is targeted because it suggests paganism; a "birthday" might not be happy to all because it isn't celebrated by Jehovah's Witnesses. ...

In a throwback to "Footloose," the word "dancing" is also taboo. However, there is good news for kids that like "ballet": The city made an exception for this form of dance.

Also banned are references to "divorce" and "disease," because kids taking the tests may have relatives who split from spouses or are ill.

Source: CBS New York

CBS provides the complete list of words that the administrators want to protect children from seeing:

  • 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.

First, I suppose it has to be pointed out that even if the goal is wonderful and the list is a reasonable means to achieve the goal, the list will fail unless it's also applied to the classrooms. If exposure to these words really is so awful, then students need to be protected from them in the regular daily lessons, not simply in a standardized test that comes around once a year.

So if the school administrators are to be taken seriously about their goals, then they have to be planning to ban these words from classes as well. And if they aren't planning it, then they aren't serious about their stated goals. So why isn't there any mention of banning the words from classes? And why haven't the reporters asked that important question? Seems like a pretty obvious concern to me.

Second, I can't take the alleged goals of the administrators very seriously because their approach with this list is so broad. I could perhaps be persuaded that it's inappropriate (and unnecessary) to have questions in standardized tests about physical and sexual abuse, about rape, about alcoholism... even about smoking cigarettes. So much of the rest, though, is just nonsense -- especially when we get to things involving basic science.

Now, I can understand and perhaps forgive a desire to remove references to celebrities, wealth, and similar things. I disagree with a total ban (though if there were a ton of such questions, that would be reason for concern), but I can understand it. I do not, however, have any tolerance for any desire to remove references to basic facts of life -- especially scientific facts -- simply because it might disturb someone's fantasy life.

April 9, 2012 at 12:49 pm
(1) Liz says:

I know someone who works for ETS (the company that writes most standardized tests in the US). She told me that they have a list of banned words, so this is not unique to one place or the public sphere. When I first heard of it, I was astonished, but then she explained why ETS does it. The reason is that the purpose of the test is to measure something like proficiency or aptitude or even potential. If students are upset, the test cannot fairly measure this. Something called the “affective filter” (a sort of emotional screen that blocks reasoning) comes up and students cannot work to their best ability.

The same cannot be said of a classroom situation where something upsetting that comes up could be discussed or the teacher could meet with the student to help her through the problem. The classroom does not have to “measure” the student’s ability in the way a test does.

Sure, the testers cannot ensure that every student be 100% awake, alert, calm, psychologically stable, etc. But my friend said they tried to remove any barriers to measuring what they were trying to measure.

April 9, 2012 at 3:13 pm
(2) Jeff Sherry says:

A goofy list of words to ban. Has the NYCDE been taken over by dominionists?

April 9, 2012 at 6:33 pm
(3) mobathome says:

@Liz(1): Hi Liz!

Did your ETS friend give you references to scientific research published in peer-reviewed journals showing that there is a measurable and sizeable effect for the presence of such words on ETS tests? If so, would you please give us the references (author, title, journal, date)? If not, would you please ask her for such references?


April 9, 2012 at 7:45 pm
(4) Ron says:

I added a new word to my vocabulary a few tears ago. I believe it would apply here. The word is “obscurantism”

April 9, 2012 at 11:39 pm
(5) Kathryn says:

wtf? Is NYC in Kansas now?

April 11, 2012 at 3:39 pm
(6) Grandpa In The East says:

Recalling the experience which led me to make my first post on Austin’s site over a year ago…

During the weekend the parents, whenever they had the chance, would ask their child what does “___” mean? What is the meaning of the word “___ “?

On and on they went.

I think they might have been preparing the little girl for Harvard and perhaps a Doctorate degree. I don’t know. In the evening we, the adults, got into some deep conversation regarding world views, etc. (This was late at night and the child had gone to bed). And being impressed with the child’s immense vocabulary, and out of curiosity I ventured to ask if “atheist” was in her vocabulary. The mother of the child was shocked! “She’s only 6 years old,” she said.

I WAS THE ONE MOST SHOCKED!!! I did not know that “atheist” would be considered such a terrible word for someone who otherwise prided herself of being a broadminded intellectual.

So, Austin, add “atheist” to the list of forbidden words.

Some educated adults even find it horrific.


After thought: Teachers’ unions should fight as much for academic freedom as they fight for job security and fair wages.

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