New York City Department of Education Bans Emotive Words on Standardized Tests


The New York City Department of Education wants to ban divorce, dinosaur, birthday, religion, Halloween, Christmas, and television along with 50 plus other “loaded” words, from the city’s standardized tests because they may “evoke unpleasant emotions” which in turn may negatively affect students’ test performance.

I am alarmed that the NYCDE could only find 50 words that may evoke unpleasant emotions, given the immutable fact that words in isolation don’t carry emotions, but rather people carry emotions according to their idiosyncratic experiences with words. For example, When I was a young boy, I ran into a black widow spider on my way into the garage to see if the pollywogs I put in the sink had turned into frogs. In my case, spider, black, widow, garage, pollywog, sink, and frog could conceivably evoke an unpleasant emotion if I saw those words on a test, which, in turn, could affect my performance. I’m also a Vietnam veteran so any words associated with the Orient would have to go as well, say wontonpanda, bamboo, noodle. I also grew up effectively fatherless and under the auspices of a loving mother wielding a cottonwood switch, belt, or scything hand. Yep, those words, in my case, would get the ax as well. And speaking of ax, I don’t think I’d like to see that on a test either because I had to chop wood when I was a kid so we could keep warm in the winter. We were poor. Toss in wood, too, while you’re at it, please.

NYCDE’s word ban clarifies what most of us already know about Departments of Education: They are hopelessly disconnected from education (Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education, has never taught school). Human sensual experience is bound up in language. Words are symbols that represent what we have “learned” through experience and that incredible miasmic lexicon makes up “thinking” (See Steven Pinker’s The Stuff of Thought and How the Mind Works). Chipping away at words is chipping away at experience and therefore at thinking and learning. The last I heard (although I have been retired for nine months now), this is what education is about, at least what it used to be about. 

The NYCDE word bans also reveal that the Department of Education prioritizes tests. Why tests? Tests attempt to freeze-frame learning at a finite point on a dynamic and infinite process and cough up a static number that is manipulated in a variety of ways — like banning emotive words — that convince education departments and gurus that they have meaningful jobs. It’s rather like an inspector picking a potato off a conveyor moving tons and tons of potatoes along 24/7, and making a judgment about all the potatoes based on one potato. All that remains are inspectors and a job well done — that is if you don’t mind potato chips loaded with big bitter black spots.

I am mystified about why the NYCDE wants to protect students from unpleasant emotions when they are taking a test. Unpleasant emotions are a ubiquitous and necessary part of life and intrinsic to learning. Unpleasant emotions can be substituted with stress and stress is necessary for learning. 

I have not heard Secretary of Education Arnie Duncan weigh in on this issue, but no matter. Unpleasant emotions, the volatile fuel of survival, are not going away any time soon and to remove them from a testing environment is to conduct testing in a vacuum which renders the test unrealistic — if not altogether rigged — and therefore invalid (I am mindful that offensive words should not appear on tests but offensive in not at issue here). Additionally, why protect students from unpleasant emotions when these very emotions give life verve — or better yet — life.