Testing Taboos: The 50 Topics Banned From Standardized Exams

Posted by Liz Dwyer

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American schools have a long history of banning controversial books, but it turns out that standardized tests ban words, too—and not just the four-letter kind. According to The New York Post, that city's Department of Education maintains a list of more than 50 words and topics that are prohibited from appearing on standardized tests administered to the city's students (see the full list below).

Some of the words, like pornography, simply aren't age-appropriate. The idea that references to Halloween or birthday parties might offend students who don't believe in celebrating those holidays seems more of a stretch. And then there are the topics—including rap and rock music, junk food, and television—that all modern students are pretty familiar with, yet they're not allowed on the tests either. Nothing referencing poverty or homelessness, either, which seems patently absurd for kids growing up in New York City.

City education officials say they make these words and topics off-limits because they're controversial or may appear "biased against (or toward) some group of people." A homeless student might be distracted by answering a question containing the word "homelessness" or referencing the topic, and no one wants a child whose parents are going through a divorce to start bawling if she has to find a synonym for that word.

But if the pressure of those tests is so extreme that such scenarios are likely, maybe the exams themselves are the problem. Kids feel anxious over taking them, and only 7 percent of teachers believe in giving them. As Valerie Stauss of The Washington Post writes, "What is there to say about people who think up words to keep off tests to avoid upsetting people, when it is the very tests themselves—and the high stakes put on the results—that people actually find so offensive?"

Banned words and topics:

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.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user -- Slavin