Free speech advocacy groups call on NY State legislators to act
Not satisfied with New York State Education Commissioner Richard P. Millss promise to stop altering literary passages on the states English Language Arts Regents exam, free expression groups are bringing the matter to the attention of New York State legislators. On June 11, the groups sent a letter to Mills; Robert Bennett, chancellor, New York State Board of Regents; Assemblyman Steven Sanders (D-L, Manhattan), chair of the Committee on Education; and State Senator John R. (Randy) Kuhl (R-52nd District), chair of the State Senate Education Committee. The letter urges state education officials to provide "greater assurance" that the New York State Education Department (NYSED) will no longer "censor educational materials."
The June 11 letter was a follow-up to the groups May 31 letter to Mills, in which they expressed concern about the routine censorship of literary passages on New York State English Language Arts Regents exams (for a previous Bookselling This Week article, click here). In response to the first letter, Roseanne DeFabio, assistant commissioner for curriculum, instruction, and assessment for NYSED, said that alterations to literary selections are done to satisfy NYSEDs Sensitivity Review Guidelines and to "respect the concerns of people." The Regents Exam is a graduation requirement of all New York high school students.
While expressing gratification that Mills has "indicated an intent to abandon the use of expurgated literary passages on the English Regents exam," the groups -- which include the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC), American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (ABFFE), and New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) -- state in the letter that Millss response is not satisfactory. Furthermore, they wonder whether NYSEDs censorship practices go far beyond an English Regents examination.
"We are concerned about whether similar forms of censorship in the name of sensitivity have infiltrated the curriculum or classroom activities, through the use of past tests as preparation tools or otherwise. For example, we are concerned with the instructions in the science section of the Sensitivity Review Guidelines to avoid references to human reproduction and evolution," the groups explained in the letter.
Additionally, the groups call for public hearings on these issues "at the earliest possible time. If, as likely, hearings cannot be held before the forthcoming Regents exams [June 18], we trust that Commissioner Millss public commitment will be implemented fully," the groups state. (To read the letter in its entirety, click here.)
Last week, in response to the groups protests, Mills stated in a press release that the practice of altering literary passages would no longer continue, starting with the upcoming Regents exam. "I think no one has confidence in Millss response," Joan Bertin, executive director of NCAC, told BTW. "Weve heard a lot of conflicting stuff out of [NYSED], and he hasnt answered our [first] letter." She said that something must be "terribly amiss" in New Yorks Education Department to allow this to happen in the first place. "We want to impress upon [NYSED] the seriousness of this kind of practice," she said. "Mills was quick to hush it up, which shows that something is very shoddy."
Chris Finan, president of ABFFE, echoed Bertins sentiments. "Were not sure that the Regents get it. Were afraid that theyll try to use ellipsis to indicate where words have been omitted," he said.
Jeanne Heifetz, the Brooklyn mother and graduate of English who was the first to call attention to the altered literary passages on the Regents exam, told BTW she believes that the Sensitivity Review Guidelines are applied "very selectively." For instance, while a literary passage from Isaac Bashevis Singer might be edited of all references to Judaism or Gentiles, high school students might be required to read and then comment on 16th century prose in the timed environment of the Regents -- something that, Heifetz noted, would be a struggle for even English grad students. "Im asking [NYSED] to disavow the sensitivity guidelines," she said.
Bertin said the problem is "how [the Sensitivity Review Guidelines] have been implemented
. They could be used to encourage the use of subjects and topics from different cultural areas."
In the meantime, while the advocacy groups await response from New York State education officials and legislators, they are attempting to find out if similar censoring is occurring on other states exams. However, "its hard to believe that its happening on this scale elsewhere," Bertin said.
According to Newsweek, at the very least, it almost happened elsewhere. In the weekly news magazines June 17 issue, columnist Anna Quindlen wrote that the Educational Testing Service (ETS), a national test-preparation company that was preparing Georgias End-of-Course Test, wanted to use excerpts from her book How Reading Changed My Life. However, when Quindlen was shown the passages, she found that the selections had been edited in an effort to avoid "controversial issues." For example, "in the sentence that read The Sumerians first used the written word to make laundry lists, to keep track of cows and slaves and household good, the words and slaves had been deleted," Quindlen explained in the article. She stressed that, unlike NYSED, the "people preparing tests for the state of Georgia at least had the common courtesy to ask permission to mess with my stuff. I declined." (To read Anna Quindlens article "With a No. 2 Pencil, Delete," go to www.newsweek.com and click on Opinions.)
Just two years ago, California implemented an exit exam, which is now a graduation requirement for all students. Students can take the exam from Grade 10 on up. Once the student passes the exit exam, he or she does not need to take it again. Carol Jago, an English high school teacher at Santa Monica High School and a member of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), sits on the California content review panel for both the state tests (grades 2 through 11) and the exit exam. And she is well aware of the Regents situation in New York.
Like New York, California has sensitivity guidelines, but literary passages used on tests must remain unchanged unless the author has granted the review committee permission to edit them. "Youre not supposed to move one comma in a poem [without permission]," she said. However, to comply with any states sensitivity guidelines often means that test-preparation companies like ETS have to leave a lot of great literature on the cutting room floor, she explained. "You cant talk about the elderly
weve gone too far
good literature will always involve some kind of conflict."
Jago said the situation even causes many test-preparation companies to write literary passages in-house. She remembered a poem on a past test, written in-house by the company, that was a verse on recycling. Californias content review committee had it removed from the exam.
As for whether changes with author permission have actually happened on past state tests or exit exams, Jago was not sure. She explained that the content review committees do not simply keep a list of words that are not allowed on exams. The members, who are made up of parents, administrators, and teachers and are from varying ethnic backgrounds, are guided by "common sense," she said. -- David Grogan