California: No Rock Concerts, No Evolution, and No Spiders

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
  • War
  • Natural disasters with loss of life
  • Drugs (including prescription drugs), alcohol, tobacco, smoking
  • Junk food
  • Abuse, poverty, running away
  • Divorce
  • Socio-economic advantages (e.g., video games, swimming pools, computers in the home, expensive vacations)
  • Sex
  • Religion
  • Complex discussions of sports
  • Slavery
  • 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.

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5 Comments

  1. Your response sounds like a good-faith attempt to see the best in this set of rules, but I’m unconvinced. (It’s worth noting that Coyne has updated his post to note that this is about writing and has modified his position).

    If we avoid topics based on ‘disadvantage’, then where do we draw the line? I’m sure that I could add a bunch of topics to the list. Faith healers, anti-vaxxers, and others may have raised their children to be distrustful of or even angry towards the medical system, so any text related to any aspect of medicine or health should be avoided (which includes, say, healthy eating, to the detriment of the struggle with obesity). Bullying is a problem for some, but some of the children may *be* bullies and have different attitudes or knowledge, so any text relating to interpersonal relationships in any way is out. The Flat Earth society may have home-schooling adherents in California, so we should avoid: geology, astronomy, basic mathematics such as geometry that may point to a round earth, ancient philosophers (e.g. Eratosthenes) and philosophy, in fact, any relevant science up through the ancient world, middle ages, or beyond. I also don’t understand why rats, roaches, lice, and spiders are singled out. Cultural attitudes vary towards many animals – snake handlers, I’m looking at you – so to be safe, we should avoid any animal whatsoever.

    I could do this all day, but by now you’ve probably convinced yourself that I’m just an idiot engaged in reductio ad absurdum. However, my problem with your position is this: why is the creationist protected from disadvantage and not the flat earther? If your answer is that flat earthers are a tiny part of the population, then you’re simply promoting a majority argument that will go wrong very quickly (“Question 10: discuss why Muslims are all terrorists”). I’d love to know, though, how you would defend protecting creationists from disadvantage and not other, more extreme positions. As Coyne points out, topics like slavery and evolution are things that they learn about in school. Why can they learn about it in a classroom and yet it’s forbidden on a test?

    Reply
  2. I should add that I’ve talked with my wife, who’s a teacher, about this list. She argues, persuasively, that this is mostly about socioeconomic triggers (e.g. rats, etc. are probably singled out because they’re the sort of insects that disadvantaged students would come across). That makes sense, and I should have seen that. On the other hand, it also makes the list somewhat schizophrenic, since the age of the solar system is unlikely to be a particular trigger for low-income students. Her argument on that score is that this comes from simple exhaustion on the part of the schools / authorities who just don’t want to fight about these issues with aggrieved parents for this sort of test. (She mentioned that she’s had to fill out surveys of this sort – “what sorts of topics would cause problems” – herself). While I can’t support that as a general principle by which to make these sorts of decisions, I can understand how it would arise.

    Reply
    • I agree with your wife. In fact, my first post on this subject was a howl of outrage that students MUST be expected to encounter issues that may be upsetting or controversial. But then I worked backwards from the spiders. Spiders aren’t a “controversial” subject–at least not that I’m aware of!–but they can easily be an “upsetting” topic. The goal of not upsetting students differentially seems to be the point of this list. And, as far as that goes, it makes sense to expand it nearly infinitely. This is not a list of content that students need to know to graduate, so why not include any topic that we can safely predict will upset some students and put them at a disadvantage when it comes to writing about it? It does not say anything about the scientific validity of creationism to admit that some students will predictably be upset by a question about evolution. For the record, I went and looked at a 2008 sample test in English Language Arts, and one question dealt with the history of Esperanto. There must be SOME students who had a traumatic experience when their over-eager parents tried to teach them Esperanto. In California, that seems a fair assumption. So even this goal of avoiding differentially upsetting questions can’t be followed thoroughly.
      I’ll check out Dr. Coyne’s updated post, thanks.

      Reply
  3. I think this speaks to the bigger issue of testing. In my experience as a teacher, what’s on the test gets taught, and what’s not takes a back seat. Way back. I’d rather see no test and argue the standards for classroom teaching.

    To the point about fairness: On the English Language Arts exam, every year there are arguments that point out how “unfair” the text selections were for a certain demographic. You’ll never please everybody with this way of thinking.

    Reply
  4. The whole testing thing makes my head explode. What kind of students are we turning out? I’d like to see the high school students tracked to see how they do long term.

    Reply

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