New York Education Department Flunks … Again, Say Anticensorship Groups

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Free speech groups, educators, parents, librarians, authors, and publishers continue to criticize New York State's Education Department, Board of Regents, and legislature, for the altered and deleted wording in literary passages on the state-mandated English Language Arts Regents Exam. In a letter dated January 6, the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC), the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (ABFFE), the Association of American Publishers (AAP), and many others, restated their objections. The groups said that, despite agreements forged at previous meetings with state representatives, they found numerous new examples of deletions, expurgations, and inaccuracies in the state's most recent exams. (For previous BTW coverage, click here.)

Their January 6 letter stated, "We have previously written to object to the routine censorship of literary passages on the New York State English Language Arts Regents exams, which is questionable on pedagogical, intellectual, and legal grounds. In our earlier correspondence, we documented numerous examples in which material was deleted apparently to eliminate any reference to race, religion, ethnicity, or other 'sensitive' or potentially controversial subjects.

"We were gratified when the Commissioner, Chancellor, and other officials recognized, in Assemblyman Steve Sanders' words [NY-D, Chair of the State Assembly Education Committee], that this was an 'ill conceived policy' and that the 'new guidelines' would 'ensure that this practice not be continued in future Regents Exams.'"

The agreed-upon guidelines, detailed in the letter, include discontinuing "sensitivity guidelines" and deletions and changes of words or phrases in passages; using complete paragraphs or sections of a piece of literature and indicating when paragraphs have been deleted; and always citing the author and title of the work.

Also cited in the letter was Sanders' assurance that "accountability has been changed to ensure these directives are carried out."

But, the letter's signatories concluded, "The question is: what accountability? The Commissioner reports to the Board of Regents, and the Board reports -- apparently -- to no one." (To read the entire letter, go to the NCAC Web site at

Joan Bertin, NCAC executive director, was quoted in a news release dated January 8: "There has been a flagrant disregard of public outcry over the routine censorship of the Regents English Exam. Public officials promised that this educationally unsound practice would stop. Nevertheless, it has persisted. There does not appear to be adequate public oversight of the Board of Regents and the Commissioner of Education. To ensure the quality of our children's education, public hearings addressing the accountability of New York's educational policy-making system are an urgent necessity."

The same day, Michael Winerip, education reporter for the New York Times, also leveled criticism in his column, "How New York Exams Rewrite Literature (A Sequel)": "They promised they'd stop it but they did it again. Last June after a parent caught them red-handed, New York State officials promised to stop sanitizing literary excerpts on the state high school Regents exams. But a review of the most recent exam … reveals that they did it again, this time altering Franz Kafka and sanitizing Aldous Huxley."

Even worse, Winerip continues, "A historian quoted on the exam believes that a test question based on his work has more than one correct answer. If he is right, it may mean that some high school students who failed the August test actually passed and could be eligible for a diploma."

Jane Hirschman of the Parents' Coalition Against High Stakes Testing, a Manhattan-based group, has vehemently pursued Winerip's charges. She told BTW, "The response of Richard Mills [Commissioner of the New York State Education Department] to that issue was that in testing situations 'of course there will always be casualties.' That's not acceptable -- this affects all of our children … and the Regents will not meet with us. The more kids have read these authors -- like Huxley, Singer, Kafka -- the more confused they would be by [the bowdlerized] versions on the Regents. These tests are intellectually corrupt. Are these the kinds of standards we as parents want to promote?"

Hirschman, among others, pointed out that the adaptation of the script of a PBS documentary on the influenza epidemic of 1918 turned the program's compilation of many interviews, including primary sources, into a single three-page passage read aloud to students as if there was only one speaker. The narrator, actor Linda Hunt, was omitted from the test materials, with David McCullough erroneously credited. Nowhere does the actual author of the documentary, Ken Chowder, appear. "If my child did what the state did on that exam in a research paper, she'd be flunked," said Hirschman.

According to Winerip's article, James A. Kadamus, deputy New York education commissioner, responded that "the [influenza] passage worked more smoothly as a single person narration," and that any shortening of passages was done for length.

Tom Dunn, spokesman for the State Education department, said, "Last June we responded to criticism of the way we construct our English exams. Previous exams had been developed using guidelines that were eliminated. In the August exam, we followed our guidelines with two mistakes: We made a mistake with David McCullough, he's actually the host of the [entire PBS] series. We used a Kafka quote inappropriately. We didn't use an ellipsis when we left out a whole paragraph. We will not do this again. We said we would not cherry pick and it was incorrect [to do so]. In reference to Aldous Huxley -- in a six-paragraph essay, we used the last two paragraphs. We feel that's acceptable. The last two paragraphs were a summary."

This response is not likely to quell criticism that test designers may expurgate passages or wording without notice or the author's approval. Chris Finan, president of ABFFE, explained, "Booksellers have long fought against censorship and that gives us a stake in this fight as well. Although not all editing is censorship, it is in the spirit of censorship that words are deleted if people think that they will be offensive. The effect of that kind censorship is that it leaves the world without anything to talk about. The last thing we want is for students to think that great writers were such bores." --Nomi Schwartz

[Examples of literary works altered on the New York State Regents English Language Arts Exams in June and August 2002 are available on NCAC's Web site at].