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Literary License?

Last spring, a parent's scrutiny of the New York state regents' exam in English succeeded in making state education officials look bad. The same parent is reporting new errors in the way literary material was handled on the latest version of the test.

The air is thus rent once more with cries of censorship, at worst, and bad judgment, at best, on the part of state education officials responsible for the mandated test.

And the parents' group that is responsible for uncovering and calling attention to the mistakes, the New York State Parents' Coalition to End High Stakes Testing, is seizing the moment by calling for the resignation of state Commissioner of Education Richard P. Mills, as well as a moratorium on all regents' exams.

Meanwhile, state education officials insist they have stopped altering literary works under "sensitivity" guidelines, which had been routine before the blowup over that policy in 2002. ("Stung by Criticism for Altering Texts, N.Y. Changes Policy," June 12, 2002.)

They admit erring, though, by leaving out an ellipsis in a passage by Franz Kafka. Two other deletions cited by the group don't count, according to the state, because they consist of whole paragraphs dropped for brevity.

"There's nothing in the August exam deleted for reasons of sensitivity," said spokesman Alan Ray, who added that such sensitivity guidelines have been abolished, as promised by the commissioner.

But the parents are also steamed by the exam's handling of a PBS television script.

They say numerous speakers are conflated, as part of a test question, into one narrator, who himself is misidentified.

Worse, charge the parents, one of the questions could be correctly answered by three of the choices, not just the one that is accepted for the test.

Mr. Ray defended that part of the exam—except for the narrator's misidentification. He pointed out that in field tests, "almost all the students" chose the state's answer, and none of the hundreds of teachers who graded the exam raised objections.

The head of the parents' group wasn't buying the state's response.

"This test is so flawed, and I don't think the state department of education wants to invest in changing it," said chairwoman Jane Hirschmann. "We need a whole revision of [the department] and a look at the board of regents."

—Bess Keller

Vol. 22, Issue 18, Page 13

Published in Print: January 15, 2003, as State Journal

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