NY Education Department Revises Exam Policy Following Criticism From Free Expression Groups

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NYSED Says It Will Cease Altering Literary Selections in Exams

Responding to a firestorm of protests from numerous free expression advocacy groups and authors, New York State Education Commissioner Richard Mills has directed the State Education Department (NYSED) to change its procedures regarding altering literary selections in the states Regents exam. "We must ensure that the state tests are fair for all students," the commissioner said in a June 4 statement. "I also believe that it is important that we use literature on the tests without changes in the passages. I looked carefully at the Education Department’s current practices and the concerns of the writers and have directed that these changes be made."

As previously reported in BTW (click here to read), a number of free speech advocacy groups documented that, for at least the past three years, NYSED had been altering literary passages by removing words and paragraphs that were considered potentially offensive. This included changing words such as "fat" to "heavy" or removing any reference to sex, race, age, or religion. On Friday, May 3, the groups sent a letter to Mills demanding an end to the alterations.

According to NYSED’s statement, "The tests now being developed will use literary passages without changing the author’s words. Literature will continue to be excerpted for length because entire works cannot appear on a single test. All passages will cite the author and title of the work."

However, groups that protested the alterations late last week, such as the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC), American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (ABFFE), and New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), are taking Mills’s statement with a grain of salt, said Joan Bertin, executive director of NCAC.

"I’ve heard a lot of conflicting statements from [NYSED] since Monday," Bertin told BTW. "What are the real facts -- are they going to fix the Regents by January, or June? Will they use ellipsis to take out sensitive words, pick dumb-downed passages, or are they really taking this seriously and looking at the impact of their sensitivity guidelines on curriculum and test construction overall?"

Furthermore, the sensitivity guidelines don’t just affect literary passages, Bertin stressed, but other parts of the Regents, as well. "There is a need for a public exploration of the subject," she said. The advocacy groups are asking legislative leaders to conduct oversight hearings on the issue. --David Grogan