Science pundit Jerry Coyne has discovered something rotten in the state of California. To graduate from California high schools, students must pass the state high-school graduation exam. That exam, Coyne discovered, is not allowed to ask students any questions about evolution. Or “rock concerts.” Or spiders. Really.
As Coyne points out, students must pass the test at some point in order to graduate from high school. The rules of the test are clear: to level the playing field, any intimation of controversial ideas must be kept out of this minimum-competency exam. As a result, the California Department of Education has published a list of topics that should be avoided:
- Violence (including guns, other weapons, and graphic animal violence)
- Dying, death, disease, hunger, famine
- Natural disasters with loss of life
- Drugs (including prescription drugs), alcohol, tobacco, smoking
- Junk food
- Abuse, poverty, running away
- Socio-economic advantages (e.g., video games, swimming pools, computers in the home, expensive vacations)
- Complex discussions of sports
- Evolution, prehistoric times, age of solar system, dinosaurs
- Rap music, rock concerts
- Extrasensory perception, witchcraft
- Halloween, religious holidays
- Anything disrespectful, demeaning, moralistic, chauvinistic
- Children coping with adult situations or decisions; young people challenging or questioning authority
- Mention of individuals who may be associated with drug use or with advertising of substances such as cigarettes or alcohol
- Losing a job, home, or pets
- Rats, roaches, lice, spiders
- Dieting, other concerns with self-image
- Political issues
- Any topic that is likely to upset students and affect their performance on the rest of the test
As Coyne protests,
[Evolution] is science, and those are important things for children to know!
We could imagine making this point even more boldly. Students should be REQUIRED, we might say, to be able to handle potentially controversial or upsetting issues. Not only should California high-school students be allowed to field questions about evolution, they should be expected to! And questions about fundamental issues such as slavery and religion. And spiders. Indeed, how could the Great State of California consider someone adequately educated if he or she could not handle the merest whiff of controversy?
We might say all that, but it would miss the point.
Students in California schools already have to know plenty of evolution. The state’s standards these days have oodles of evolution in them. [Though as Ron Numbers argues, the history of California’s science standards has played a key role in promoting the “minority-rights” argument of creationists since the late 1960s.] This minimum-competency graduation test is not meant to test whether or not students have adequate skills or knowledge. Rather, it is meant to test whether they have minimum proficiency in reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic.
The goal—if I understand it correctly—of these anti-controversy rules is not to protect students from rock music, evolution, or spiders. Rather, the goal of these rules is to ensure that the minimum-competency exam does not favor some groups of students over others. The anti-controversy rule is intended to minimize the amount of differential treatment certain student groups might get.
For example, it is not difficult to imagine students from certain religious groups having a sincere disadvantage if asked a question that assumes much cultural knowledge about rock music. If a student had been told her whole life that rock music was from the devil, she would likely know less about it, and have a different attitude about it, than would students who listened to rock music at home with their parents. The same is obviously true about evolution. A creationist student who had been exposed to evolutionary science, but who rejected those ideas, would have a harder time passing an exam if those evolutionary ideas played a central role.
Though it might be more satisfying to use this bizarre list as an opportunity to kvetch, to complain that schools these days don’t make kids walk ten miles barefoot uphill both ways, this California policy seems like a sensible attempt to treat all students equally, as much as possible.