One week after a controversy broke out over New York's Department of Education's (DOE) policy of suggesting that school test publishers avoid certain topics and words while preparing the tests- words like "evolution," "birthday" and any topics related to religion - the department announced earlier this week that it is abandoning the much-criticized practice.
"After reconsidering our message to test publishers and the reaction from parents, we will revise our guidance and eliminate the list of words to avoid on tests," Shael Polakow-Suransky, the city's chief academic officer, said in a statement emailed to the press Tuesday. "We will continue to advise companies to be sensitive to student backgrounds and avoid unnecessary distractions that could invalidate test scores and give an inaccurate assessment of how students are doing."
"New York City schools teach the broadest, richest curriculum in the nation and we can't let this distract from the important work going on our classrooms," the official said, alluding to criticism that limiting the list of possible test topics is equivalent to providing children with bad education.
The restrictions have apparently been in place for years, but were widely ridiculed after The New York Post published a report about their existence on March 26. Media picked up the joke that the city forbids talking about dinosaurs for fear of offending creationists, and conservative groups slammed authorities for exercising excessive bureaucracy and trying to be overly politically correct, pushing out religion from the public spectrum and limiting the students' opportunities to gain broad knowledge on religious subjects.
Deeming such topics too problematic, the department has suggested- in a recent "request for proposal" to potential test publishers- that faith-related subjects, such as "Christmas" and "evolution," be omitted from standardized tests. The list of over 50 forbidden topics was described by the city as a "guide to assist writers in avoiding subject matter that would probably cause a selection to be deemed unacceptable by the New York City Department of Education."
The goal, the officials said at the time, was to avoid "anything that may be interpreted as disrespectful or demeaning to any group."
A topic might be "unacceptable" for any of the following reasons: it could "evoke unpleasant emotions in the students that might hamper their ability to take the remainder of the test in the optimal frame of mind;" it is "controversial among the adult population and might not be acceptable in a state-mandated testing situation;" or it "has been overused in standardized tests or textbooks and is thus overly familiar."
A topic can also be banned if it "appears biased against (or toward) some group of people."