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Michael Zimmerman, Ph.D.

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At a Loss for Words -- and All the Ideas That Go With Them

Posted: 04/02/2012 1:22 am

Think back for a moment to the standardized tests of your youth. Included on those tests was a section on reading comprehension. You would read the paragraph or two and answer some questions about the content.

Let's try just that with the following two paragraphs:

Robin and Jill were best friends in elementary school. In fact, they shared a birthday and their two families took vacations together every year. But when they entered middle school, Robin's father became ill and her family moved to the Southwest where the climate was better for him. It was traumatic for these two friends to live so far apart and they tried to stay in touch. After Jill's parents divorced, however, it became more difficult and, as they entered high school, they lost touch with one another. Years later, Jill was writing a feature story on a homeless shelter in Phoenix when she encountered Robin who was volunteering at the shelter. They immediately reconnected and went back to Robin's house to reminisce.


Sitting around Robin's pool with a bottle of good wine, the two old friends recalled some of the wonderful times they had growing up. They laughed for hours about the time they dressed up as fortune tellers for Halloween and pretended to be able to read each other's minds, about the time they talked their parents into taking them to the local animal shelter to get two cats because, after watching a horror film on television, they were convinced that there were rats in their homes. They remembered the hurricane of 1974, how they holed up together in Jill's basement as the wind blew, dancing to rock and roll music and eating junk food. How could they forget the promise they made just before Christmas in 1975 that they'd run away from home if they didn't get the pony they agreed to share? Or the time they both got sick after smoking their first cigarettes in a failed attempt to look like Faye Dunaway in Chinatown. As the sun set, they went inside to use Robin's computer to try and connect with some of their classmates from so many years back.

Ok, simple enough, right. A very nice story about two best friends who lost touch with one another as children and who found each other as adults. Instead of a bunch of questions to test your reading comprehension, let me ask you just one:

In how many ways does the New York City Department of Education find this uplifting story problematic?

If you answered with a number less than 23, you didn't read carefully enough! Yes, you read that last sentence correctly. According to the New York City Department of Education, there were at least 23 objectionable items in those two paragraphs and thus they would have been banned from any city-wide test. I'll tell you about the 23 items in a second but first let me say that when I first heard of their list of 50 banned words earlier this week I assumed it was a hoax. After a bit of digging, I concluded that the list was real and decided that I would write something about the list on the only day of the year that was appropriate, April Fool's Day.

Now, what was so wrong with the two paragraphs? In sequence, the story made reference to: birthdays, vacations, illness, childhood trauma, divorce, a homeless shelter, poverty, a house with a swimming pool, alcohol, fortune telling, Halloween, mind reading, an animal shelter, rats, a hurricane, dancing, rock and roll, junk food, Christmas, running away from home, cigarettes, celebrities, and a home with a computer.

It doesn't get much crazier than this! You can read the full list on the web site of New York City's CBS affiliate. Dennis Walcott, the Chancellor of New York City's Schools, offered the explanation that the list of banned words was a way of "making sure that test makers are sensitive in the development of their tests." As CBS put it, he thought it was critical "to have words they deem upsetting removed from standardized tests." Apparently reading about an animal shelter might be too upsetting for New York students and thus they might not be able to learn to their full potential. Can it get any crazier?

Well, yes, it can! The list includes two terms that weren't included in the two paragraphs above, but which Chancellor Walcott believes students should never have to face. Those words? Dinosaurs and evolution.

So, if the Chancellor has his way, it will be illegal for any standardized test in the City of New York to make mention of either dinosaurs or evolution. It is one (completely misguided) thing to try and protect students from thinking about some of difficulties that life places in front of all of us. It is quite another, to refuse to allow students to read or think about one of the greatest scientific theories of all time or to pretend that the dominant life form on the planet for 165 million years never existed.

Rarely am I at a loss for words, but in this case, with New York City attempting to remove 50 from my vocabulary, I can't think of anything more to say.

 

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