Reading & Literacy

Stung by Criticism for Altering Texts, N.Y. Changes Policy

By Mary Ann Zehr — June 12, 2002 7 min read
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Jeanne Heifetz set out trying to outsmart what she perceived as her enemy—New York’s department of education—and in the view of many last week, she succeeded.

The Brooklyn weaver and stepmother of a high school senior went public with her discovery that the creators of the state regents’ exam in English—working under “sensitivity” guidelines—had deleted or substituted words in literary selections on the test without indicating that changes had been made. The test writers also had failed to seek permission from authors to change their passages, she revealed.

Ms. Heifetz’s findings were detailed in a June 2 front-page article in TheNew York Times. On June 4, state Commissioner of Education Richard P. Mills released a statement that said the practice would be discontinued. The state will continue to use literary passages and will no longer alter an author’s words. “I looked carefully at the education department’s current practices and the concerns of the writers and have directed that these changes be made,” Mr. Mills said.

Some people wondered aloud last week how education officials could believe they were helping students by engaging in what the critics characterized as censorship and foolishness.

“The reaction of almost everyone is, ‘Oh my God, what a stupid thing to do, how did they ever get there?’” Leon Friedman, the general counsel for the PEN American Center, a prominent literary group, and the counsel for author Isaac Bashevis Singer’s estate, said last week. At a June 3 press conference in New York City, the PEN American Center joined several other groups in charging that the state education department was censoring literature.

The alterations—which involved racial, religious, cultural, and other references that test reviewers believed could have offended students or made them uncomfortable—occurred in short passages on the high school exam.

The altered passages were used as the subjects for multiple-choice and essay questions. The entries appeared on the state-mandated English graduation exam, which students take for the first time in the junior year.

“I’m really disillusioned. How else is the test really not reflecting my trust?” said Donna Kemp, the president of the New York State English Council and an English teacher at Peru Middle School in Peru, N.Y.

But some representatives of educational testing firms said they could understand the pressures that might have led the New York test-makers to alter the passages, which included excerpts from such varied authors as Anton Chekhov, Annie Dillard, and Elie Wiesel.

“You can get to the point where you are almost studying your navel looking for bias,” said Ed D. Roeber, the vice president of Measured Progress, a nonprofit educational testing organization in Dover, N.H.

In 1989, as the director of the Michigan educational assessment program, Mr. Roeber got swept up in a public debate about whether a literary selection on sibling rivalry should appear on the state’s standardized test. He withdrew the passage to avoid trouble.

Diane Ravitch, an education historian at New York University, is writing a book about sensitivity reviews in educational publishing and views them as censorship. She said of the New York controversy: “The scary part of this whole episode is that it may discourage test-makers from using classical literature at all.”

Uncovering a Pattern

Ms. Heifetz said she stumbled on to the fact that the New York test-makers had modified literary selections while she was studying recent regents’ English tests to “know the enemy,” as she put it.

She is an active member of the Parents’ Coalition to End High Stakes Testing, an arm of the New York Performance Standards Consortium, an organization of 32 schools favoring alternative assessments. The schools successfully sued the state to avoid giving the regents’ exams as a graduation requirement, but the waiver they obtained runs out for 9th graders who enroll this fall.

In all other New York public schools, passing the regents’ English test has been a graduation requirement for two years.

Ms. Heifetz, who earned a master’s degree in English from New York University, first noticed that the phrase “She’s gay!” had been omitted from a selection of Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott.

Ms. Heifetz reviewed 26 prose selections on 10 exams and found what she believed to be significant modifications on 20 selections, and small changes in four others.

In a selection from Ernesto Galarza’s memoir, Barrio Boy, for example, the word “fat” had been changed to “heavy,” “skinny” had been changed to “thin,” and “gringo lady” had become “American lady.”

The words “Jewish” and “Gentile” and other references to religion had been deleted from an excerpt of a memoir by Isaac Bashevis Singer, In My Father’s Court.

The statement “The United States is the biggest debtor, as is well known” had been deleted from a speech by United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

“This was a pattern of intellectual dishonesty that was running through the exam and reflected a disdain for literature and students,” Ms. Heifetz said last week.

Some of the writers whose works were used on the test agreed.

Author Frank Conroy, whose work also was modified, wrote to Commissioner Mills: “Who are these people who think they have a right to ‘tidy up’ my prose? The New York State Political Police? The Correct Theme Authority?”

Getting Consent

New York got into making changes in literary passages, said Rosanne DeFabio, the state education department’s assistant commissioner for curriculum, instruction, and assessment, by trying to satisfy sensitivity guidelines and its sensitivity committee, made up of 20 people with different cultural and religious perspectives.

At the same time, she said, “I don’t want to put the blame on the committee. ... The responsibility lies with me and my office.”

Noting that the sensitivity guidelines were written by a committee, Ms. DeFabio added: “Maybe that explains how they got to be very specific and limiting.”

She said Mr. Mills asked last week that the guidelines be immediately scrapped in favor of a simpler process for selecting literature, based on literary merit, fairness, and accessibility.

Ms. DeFabio also said she had believed that, under the “fair use” provisions of U.S. copyright law, it was legal for the state to alter literary selections and omit profanities, racial slurs, or other potentially offensive language without the consent of the authors. She said she was advised a few months ago that was not the case.

The department had already moved away from such alterations, she said, noting that literary selections on the regents’ English exam that will be given to high school juniors on June 18 and 19 have not been altered.

Congressional Directive

Test-makers say they’re always aware of public pressure to sanitize test items.

Roy Truby, the executive director of the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees the National Assessment of Educational Progress, said the board had received a new directive from Congress in the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001 to make sure that test items on NAEP are “secular, neutral, and nonideological.”

Mr. Truby said test-makers need to balance two public concerns: “People want to make sure the items are not biased and are neutral. But then if you make the items so [politically correct], you end up with something that is all dull, plain, and vanilla and not interesting—censorship.”

Like the New York exam, the national assessment uses authentic literary passages on tests rather than, as many test-makers do, commissioning people to write original passages. Some test experts say using literature encourages teachers to select a broader range of authors.

Maureen G. DiMarco, the vice president of educational and governmental affairs for the Houghton Mifflin Co. and a former California state education secretary, said her company uses literary selections on its tests but typically avoids selections containing anything that would offend anyone.

“They don’t rewrite the piece,” she says of the test developers. “If a piece has bias issues, they wouldn’t be using the piece in the first place.”

Meanwhile, a few students at New York’s Peru Central High School speculated last week on what had led state education officials to modify literary selections.

Kathleen F. Klaus, a junior at the school who took the regents’ English exam in January, said they might have been trying to keep from “inciting controversy among reactionary fundamentalists.”

The result, she said, is “they extract all the emotion and passion from these passages so they become these bland words we seem to have read a million times before.”

“I think they’re trying to protect you from growing up in general,” added Sara R. Rosen, a senior at the school. “It kind of takes the learning out of it.”

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A version of this article appeared in the June 12, 2002 edition of Education Week as Stung by Criticism for Altering Texts, N.Y. Changes Policy

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