New York City Dept of Education's "banned" words list


64 Responses to “New York City Dept of Education's "banned" words list”

  1. Teller says:

    THAT would’ve been a fun meeting to watch. With Sno-Caps.

  2. jerwin says:

    I have a solution. It involves relying less on standardized testing.

    • jef says:

      So what’s your solution? Less reliance on testing isn’t a solution all on its own.

      • Ashen Victor says:

        Yes it is.

        Ask Iceland.

      • Yorgus says:

         Teachers are (for the most part) quite capable of assessing student progress without standardized testing. I’ve been a teacher for 24 years. I’m quite capable of following the state core curriculum, writing and executing lesson plans, and creating and using formative and summative tests for my students. Pearson and McGraw-Hill have little or nothing to offer me. Standardized testing exists for two reasons: to fill the pockets of testing companies, and to fill the pockets of the legislators who listen to the testing companies, who fill the legislators’ pockets.

        ad nauseum

  3. Dan Stocke says:

    For the beatniks out there:

    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.),





  4. magicdragonfly says:

    Remember the recent news story about the teacher who handed out a test (to a young group of students) with very controversial questions regarding murder, etc? Taken out of context, any news article relating to censorship sounds creepy.
    When you’re testing someone (this isn’t limited to high stakes standardized tests, but can easily include weekly quizzes) you’re not testing how well Susie can set aside distracting thoughts about a hypothetical scenario, you’re testing how well she can apply abstract knowledge to a more concrete realm.

    • Peppermint says:

      Of course, but then again, I don’t think you need to issue a list of forbidden concepts to avoid that sort of incident. Plain common sense and talking about the issue is enough, I think, not everything needs to be regulated precisely. Regulations are very blunt weapons that can be used against the purpose they usually serve. (Like invalidating a whole test based on the fact that the word “swimming pool” was used.)

      • chgoliz says:

        A friend who married and had a child earlier than the norm — and thus was going through parenting milestones before others in her peer group — told me many years ago about the time her son came home from taking one of the standardized tests and asked her “what’s a marina?”.  She told him, and he was relieved he had gotten it right.  She looked at me and asked: “how many inner city kids would know the answer to that?”

        A swimming pool conjures up a completely different image to a suburban kid from southern California than to a kid in Detroit.  Also, a completely different sense of where one fits in the social landscape.

        There have been a lot of experiments showing that subtly reminding someone they are black or female or poor prior to taking a test will cause them to do worse on the test.

        Swimming pools aren’t as neutral a subject as you think.

    • sweetcraspy says:

      Agreed.  With the sole exception of evolution, this list doesn’t bother me.  If you’re testing understanding of logarithmic growth, using cancer as the framing element is going to make some percentage of kids feel like shit.  This is basic trigger avoidance stuff.  I’m especially impressed that they are sensitive to low income kids who don’t get big birthday gifts or have a computer at home. 

  5. Peppermint says:

    With so many topics banned, it kind of makes you wonder what the standardised test WILL be about. Bunnies and flowers?

  6.  Yeah none of the reading passages will be remotely interesting now. Before they were about relatable real word issues, now they’re going to dry and drab and more painful to read. and they wouldn’t dare imposing this on individual schools, I’m reading “invisible man” right now, how would I be tested? They would have to implement a book ban also.

    • jandrese says:

       I don’t know what standarized tests you took, but mine were always dry and drab.  I always thought it was another part of the test that you could read a paragraph that banal without passing out or losing your mind. 

  7. Paul Renault says:

    What’s needed now, is a constantly-changing table translating banned-words to innocuous-words.  After a few weeks, leak the list.  Let the Board ban THOSE words.  Then create a new table. 

    Rinse, repeat.

    Eventually, we can get the entire English language banned!

  8. Ashen Victor says:

    Those are not 50 banned words, they are banning entire concepts!

    They are banning the real world from standardized tests.

    Makes (no) sense…

  9. OldBrownSquirrel says:

    I think the point is to avoid pushing anyone’s buttons, because then you’re testing how easily their buttons are pushed, and that’s really not what they’re trying to test.  Remember the controversy a while ago about the teacher who put together some story problems for a math class that involved slavery? It’s best not to pull those kinds of stunts on standardized tests. This is less about censorship and more about objective metrology and common courtesy.

    • Peppermint says:

      I understand the idea, but… “Homes with swimming pools” ? Really?

      • Judas Peckerwood says:

        I also like how rap and rock are singled out as inappropriate music.

      • rhodian says:

        They want to avoid words where  “the topic appears biased against (or towards) some group of people.”  Really, homes with swimming pools was probably one of the first things to go.  There used to be many questions on 11+ exams in the UK which clearly favoured the middle classes.  The exams still do favour the middle classes, but at least they don’t do it quite so egregiously any more.

        • Antinous / Moderator says:

          No, they’re trying to avoiding offending the hillbilly demographic. If Jethro puts 7,000 gallons of Granny’s possum gravy into the cement pond and Ellie Mae takes out 6,000 gallons, how much gravy will be left?

      • chgoliz says:

        You have no idea how much your privilege is showing with this statement.

  10. phisrow says:

    While they appear to be taking an overly broad brush to things, I can definitely see the logic behind some of them.

    I’ve definitely had more than a few math tests where an assumed knowledge of the point values of certain activities in various sports where essential to being able to answer the question correctly. Never a pleasing way to lose points.

  11. vsherbie says:

    This is giving me an aneurism
    How the hell are they going to teach biology without talking about cancer, diseases, or evolution, and how can the history of anywhere be told without any mention of slavery?

    Oh that’s right, subjects that have actual facts in them are evil atheistic plots. When did looking at things happening right in front of you in the world become a radical act?

    • rhodian says:

      The words are only banned in standardised tests.  It shouldn’t affect the teaching of biology, so I wouldn’t worry about it.

      • Yorgus says:

         Trouble is, the standardized test is supposed to measure learning (either achievement or potential) and biology is one of the subjects included.

        Mention of evolution is banned to sanitize the tests and make them acceptable to the corporate conservatives who mandated them in the first place.

    • Biology is not one of the subjects included. The CNN article clearly states “math and English tests”.

      There’s a big, big difference between what’s appropriate to teach in the biology classroom — evolution comes to mind as a perfect example–and what’s appropriate to put into a high-stakes test covering math and English.

      If the goal is to test reading comprehension or math skills in an equitable* manner, which is the stated goal of these standardized tests, then you want relatively bland and unobjectionable material in them. The last thing a kid raised by evolution deniers (not quite child abuse but still an intellectual disadvantage), a kid trying to do well on an algebra exam and hoping to go to college, needs is to have the further disadvantage of having the ignorance imposed by his parents rubbed in his face while trying to concentrate.

      *nothing about standardized testing As We Know It is equitable

      • Sigh. My edit button isn’t visible for the note above. Anyway, in another comment below, I note that the CNN story was incomplete: There’s an AP story which says the tests cover “math, science, literacy and social studies”.

        On the other hand, I’m not too worried about New York City’s emphasis on teaching evolution, given what their standards say about it:

        Fourth grade:

        Life Sciences Concepts
        a Demonstrates understanding of characteristics of organisms.
        b Demonstrates understanding of life cycles of organisms.
        c Demonstrates understanding of organisms and environments.
        d Demonstrates understanding of change over time.

        Eighth grade:

        Life Sciences Concepts
        a Demonstrates understanding of structure and function in living systems.
        b Demonstrates understanding of reproduction and heredity and the role of genes and environment on trait expression.
        c Demonstrates understanding of regulation and behavior and response to environmental stimuli.
        d Demonstrates understanding of populations and ecosystems and the effects of resources and energy transfer on populations.
        e Demonstrates understanding of evolution, diversity, and adaptation of organisms.

        Tenth grade:

        Life Sciences Concepts
        a Demonstrates an understanding of the cell.
        b Demonstrates an understanding of biological evolution.
        c Demonstrates an understanding of interdependence of organisms.
        d Demonstrates an understanding of matter, energy, and organization in living systems.
        e Demonstrates an understanding of evolution, diversity, and adaptation of organisms.
        f Demonstrates an understanding of behavior of organisms

  12. It’s as likely they don’t the test makers to accidentally make the Georgia blunder.

    I mean it costs a LOT of money, these lawsuits. Well, that’s Bureaucracy for you…

  13. VicqRuiz says:

    as long as they can use “semprini”, all is not lost.

  14. Teller says:

    Anything is bannable under the broad swath of “Traumatic material.” How indefinable is that? And of course in this kind of sensitivity committee ‘every voice must be heard and respected so as not to be hurtful.’ Oy. It’s monkeys at a salad bar.

  15. hypersomniac says:

    Sample word problem: Johnny is a sex-slavery sorcerer. Calculate his total mass.

    • Marc45 says:

      That’s easy! Just put him in a swimming pool enabled home and measure the displacement …oops that’s volume. Never mind, the list is good.

  16. Daniel Smith says:

    So…all this stuff is banned from the standardized tests, and since funding is based on the results of these tests the teachers teach what is on the tests….what an oddly distorted education these kids are going to get. How does one test someone’s understanding of biology without mentioning evolution, anyway?

    • Yorgus says:

      “How does one test someone’s understanding of biology without mentioning evolution, anyway?”

      Simple. You cannot.

      The politicians who push for accountability in the form of standardized tests are on the take from the testing companies, and are in bed with the social conservatives who want religion, not science, to be a core component of the required curriculum.

      • thivai says:

        This is not true. For grades 1 through 3-4, and for a lot of of grades 4-5 through 9, you don’t need to discuss evolution in biology except as a particular standard of life science (which is part of the trio along with earth and physical sciences). So, 100% of your life science or biology questions for grades 1 through 3-4 will not contain anything about evolution because it is too high of a concept. These kids will learn about adaptations, such as a camel’s hump. After that, at least 90% of your questions can still be about concepts other than evolution. 
        Secondly, the “testing companies” are not really that but part of  educational publishers who also produce state tests. The company that writes the tests is determined through bidding and contracts, so the “testing companies” are really in bed with the department of education people in various states, not “social conservatives,” who, as far as I know in the 12 years I’ve been doing this, have not ordered or adopted textbooks, state tests, or any content of real value.
        Finally, I don’t this word list applies to the sciences anyway, as every science test prep product I’ve worked on for NY (3 so far) mentions evolution (when grade level appropriate).
        To be sure, politics plays some role in the content we produce, but educational publishers are not the nefarious shadow government screwing with culture and society that your radical “moderate” views would leave you to believe.

      • Biology is not being tested. From the CNN story:

        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.

        • Since my edit button isn’t visible for the comment above:

          As I note at great length elsewhere, an AP article says something different from the CNN article. It says the tests cover “math, science, literacy and social studies”.

          As I also note at great length elsewhere, NYC schools put evolution in a central location for teaching life sciences. Fourth grade proficiency requires “Demonstrates understanding of change over time.” Eighth grade proficiency requires “Demonstrates understanding of evolution, diversity, and adaptation of organisms.” Tenth grade proficiency adds to that “Demonstrates an understanding of biological evolution.”

          The English section of their website has a pretty good lesson plan for teaching “Inherit the Wind”, too.

          I’m not too worried about the state of teaching evolution in New York City.

  17. William says:

    Necrophagic lycanthropes, omnia.

  18. William says:

    Necrophagic lycanthropes, omnia. Gollum gollum.

  19. You can’t mention evolution on a standardized test? But you can very likely mention Intelligent Design :/ It’s “not religion” after all…

  20. thivai says:

    As someone who writes and edits standardized tests, I can tell you that this word list is really for the doofus freelancers who sometimes think it’s okay to write a story about getting drunk and stealing a car for third graders. You’re seeing a little of how the sausage is made, so of course it looks ridiculous. And it is, to a point. But you have to remember that we’re working from a set of standards first, such as writing something that a kid can identify a decent cause and effect relationship from. It’s never high literature, except when previously published literary pieces are used or adapted. 

    All of the major educational publishers have a very conservative approach to material, and the justification is that kids have access to trade (bookstore) fiction, which is perverted and weird, so it’s okay that we give them the equivalent of literary hardtack.

    These lists are often made in committee, so of course they’re very broad. However, educational publishers do not play to the Mississippi contingent, as Antinous would suggest. Being conservative does not equate to making possum gravy in the swimming pool, and I have rejected a lot of reading comprehension passages for being too rural as to be a foreign experience for the audience we were writing for. 

    Basically you’re writing for a kid who doesn’t exist using guidelines created by committee and starting with an abstract learning concept. You’re guaranteed to fail. 

  21. Just so everyone is clear on this point: The only subjects being tested are math and English. No one is banning the word “evolution” from a biology test. From the CNN article:

    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.

    So, sorry, but you won’t be able to put this question on a math test:

    “If the first parent abuses three children five times a week, and the second parent abuses two children seven times a week, which parent commits more acts of abuse in a week?”

    I realize there are those for whom that is a startling act of censorship. They are cordially invited to grow the fuck up.

    • thivai says:

      Another thing to keep in mind is that standardized testing really hates to get all liberal artsy and go across the curriculum. The reason is that a test item could require background knowledge in a content area, such as biology, that would render the item useless as a gauge for testing reading comprehension skills. In other words, if you use a butterfly’s life cycle to test sequence, you run the risk of potentially requiring a student to be familiar with the concept of what a life cycle is before he or she can tell you the sequence. Since you’re supposed to be testing the ability to comprehend a sequence of events, it’s much better to write a dumb story about a kid who runs through his lame-ass day by geting ready for school on a… Saturday (cue ironic trombone) than to try to use a passage about butterfly metamorphosis. Hence, the list.

    • Daniel Smith says:

      That is not what the article says. The article states that

      These are a few of the 50-plus words and references the New York City Department of Education is hoping to ban from the city’s standardized tests.

      then goes on to say that the list of words was made public

      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.

      This certainly implies that the ban will apply to all standardized tests, but perhaps the policy is completely half-assed and will apply only to math and english tests. That would make the ban even stupider than it appears at first glance.

      • Daniel, your last paragraph:

        This certainly implies that the ban will apply to all standardized tests, but perhaps the policy is completely half-assed and will apply only to math and english tests. That would make the ban even stupider than it appears at first glance.

        says that it is stupider not to ban the word evolution from a test about biology than it is to ban it. (Sentence edited because I got it exactly backward in the original.) I’m thinking Lou Reed applies in more than one direction here:

        But you know people get all emotional
        And sometimes, man, they just don’t act rational.
        They think they’re just on TV

        Now, on further research, I’ve found, via the New York Times, an AP story which says the request was for more than math and English tests:

        The Department of Education included the list in a recently issued request for proposals to create the tests that would be used to measure student progress in math, science, literacy and social studies.

        But it goes on to say this:

        A spokeswoman for the department said the list is of topics that are suggested to be avoided, not outright banned, and it’s standard language that’s been included in proposal requests for some time.

        “There is no ban on any topic in our tests or curriculum,” spokeswoman Deidrea Miller said in a statement. “This is standard language that has been used by test publishers for many years and is meant to ensure that tests contain no possible bias or distractions for students.

        The thing which most concerns me about this supposed problem is whether this has a chilling effect on teaching evolution. This suggests that is not a problem.

        I sure would like to read that RFP, though, and I’m having a hard time finding it.

        • Daniel Smith says:

          If the point of “suggesting that words be avoided”, whatever that means, is to prevent exposing teh children to things that might offend or upset them then it seems a pointless and expensive exercise if half of the curriculum still addresses them. In addition to evolution, how does one teach or test history without reference to religion, war, slavery or nuclear weapons? I’d love to see the lessons that come out of this effort. I wonder whether that in practice, a suggestion to avoid a word will become a ban if for no other reason than to protect the content provider from outright rejection and/or lawsuits.

          • Unless the NYC DOE spokeswoman is flatly lying, you can look at the current lessons and see, as the language has been in RFPs “for many years and is meant to ensure that tests contain no possible bias or distractions for students”.

            (Putting slavery into a math test, like the travesty in Georgia linked far above, constitutes a distraction. Putting slavery into a history test does not. It’s a pretty simple distinction to make.)

            Check the Scope and Sequence documents on this page, and you’ll see “religion, war, slavery [and] nuclear weapons” are indeed taught.

  22. Bob Carlson says:

    Let’s start with banning “standardized testing”  it is all of boring, overly used and scary.  Now add “dad, father and belt” all for the same reason.  On to “uncle, brother, (big) sister and cousin” because each was abusive in his/her own way.  “Teacher” follows closely as does “Principal.”  Then we can go off on another tangent with “priest and nun.”  I think you get my drift.  OMG, “Peanuts!”

  23. urbanspaceman says:


    I can just hear that list, the way you’ve laid it out, being read by William S. Burroughs in his “Junky” voice or by Allen Ginsberg in his “Howl” voice!


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