Removal of Literary Works From Calif. Test Stirs Flap
Decisions by California officials to remove two prominent authors' works from a statewide assessment have sparked national controversy and spurred an influential state lawmaker and the state board of education to schedule hearings to examine the issue.
Critics contend that the stories by Alice Walker and Annie Dillard were removed because of undue influence by a conservative group that opposes the assessment.
The controversy over the test, in which 10th graders are asked to consider passages from literature, is one of many unfolding nationally as educators try to introduce curricula and assessments designed to elevate student performance by requiring them to analyze rather than memorize information.
People for the American Way, a liberal constitutional-rights group, charged that the California actions sent "a chilling message across the country of the threat to educational freedom and constitutional rights posed by extremist pressure groups.''
Assemblywoman Delaine Eastin, the chairwoman of the Assembly education committee and a leading candidate in the election for state superintendent of public instruction this year, will hold a hearing next week.
State education officials have denied the allegations of censorship.
"We have a stellar record of holding our ground against'' critics, said Susie Lange, a spokeswoman for the education department. "In perspective, this is a test question; this is not curriculum.''
The controversy arose after a staff member in the education department decided to pull Ms. Walker's "Roselily'' from the California Learning Assessment System test.
The decision was made last fall, according to state officials. But it was not until last month, when the education department was preparing to send a revised version of the assessment to the publisher, that members of the public and the media noticed the exclusion.
Ms. Walker denounced the action in local papers, calling education officials "abominably weak.''
Inflaming the issue was the subsequent revelation that the state board had rejected two other works for inclusion in the assessment.
A second piece by Ms. Walker was excluded because it was deemed hostile to meat eating by the board member who examined it. A story by Ms. Dillard was passed over because it portrayed a snowball fight that board members thought some people might see as too violent.
"We understand that the two additional stories were pulled for ideological reasons as opposed to academic reasons,'' said Jean M. Hessburg, the California director for People for the American Way.
Story Called Antireligious
At the center of the dispute is the Traditional Values Coalition, a conservative organization that has complained about the appropriateness of the assessment.
Beverly Sheldon, the group's director of research, said she attended a state board meeting in January to raise general concerns about the test.
Ms. Sheldon said she used "Roselily'' as an example of her organization's concerns that the assessment will be used to change students' beliefs and values.
The story, about a Christian woman in rural Mississipppi married to a Muslim, is antireligious, Ms. Sheldon charged.
"I had no idea there were two Alice Walker stories, and I had no idea who Alice Walker was,'' Ms. Sheldon added.
Education officials maintain they did not succumb to pressure.
Acting Superintendent of Public Instruction William D. Dawson said the story was pulled in large measure because a newspaper in southern California had printed test questions based on "Roselily,'' thereby violating its integrity.
Mr. Dawson also said the department wanted to insure that controversy over "Roselily'' did not jeopardize the testing program as a whole.
Marion McDowell, the president of the state board, called the charge of censorship "absolutely baseless'' and "insulting.''
"The board's intent was to ensure that the important focus of the
CLAS exam ... did not become overshadowed by objections to any
particular reading selection,'' she said.