Last June there was a ruckus when an eagle-eyed parent named Jeanne Heifetz noticed that literary excerpts on the Regents’ exam her stepdaughter brought home had been altered, apparently with the intention of removing anything that might possibly give offense to anyone (including all references to religion), in the process seriously altering the meaning of the passages. After prolonged and well-deserved ridicule, the Department of Education caved and promised that changes would be made. The story faded from view.
Now Michael Winerip reveals in today’s NY Times that (as might have been expected by anyone with a healthy degree of cynicism) nothing has in fact changed.
Ms. Heifetz, bless her, recently got a look at August’s English exam. In new guidelines, the state promised complete paragraphs with no deletions, but an excerpt from Kafka (on the importance of literature) changes his words and removes the middle of a paragraph without using ellipses, in the process deleting mentions of God and suicide.
The new state guidelines promised not to sanitize, but a passage on people’s conception of time from Aldous Huxley (a product of England’s colonial era) deletes the paragraphs on how unpunctual “the Oriental” is.
But the saddest example of how standardized testing is lowering academic standards (as a recent national study by Arizona State University reports) can be seen in the way New York officials butchered an excerpt from a PBS documentary on the influenza epidemic of 1918.
Like any good historical work, the documentary on this epidemic, which killed half a million Americans, included numerous interviews with historians, novelists, medical experts and survivors, and quoted primary sources of the era. But the three-page passage read out loud to students on the state exam is edited to make it appear that there is only one speaker.
Though the new guidelines promised to identify the authors of any excerpts, the state does not identify the documentary’s author, Ken Chowder. It does identify the narrator, although — oops! — incorrectly: the narrator was Linda Hunt, not David McCullough. As Ms. Heifetz says, any student who melded the words of a dozen people into one and then misidentified the narrator would surely be flunked.
The state version cuts out the passages with the most harrowing and moving accounts of the epidemic, as when children played on piles of coffins stacked outside an undertaker’s home. It removes virtually all references to government officials’ mishandling the epidemic. It deletes the references to religious leaders like Billy Sunday, who promised that God would protect the virtuous, even as worshipers dropped dead at his services.
Furthermore, “Ms. Heifetz believes that one test question based on the influenza reading has three correct answers”—and the professor featured in the documentary agrees:
To get a second opinion on Question 2, I tracked down Dr. Alfred Crosby, a retired University of Texas professor who was featured in the PBS documentary and has written the book “America’s Forgotten Pandemic.” I sent him a copy of the state’s sanitized excerpt and the multiple-choice questions. Dr. Crosby loves history’s complexity and was offended by the state’s single-speaker vision of the past.
He believes all three answers to Question 2 were implied in the state excerpt and said that if he were marked wrong for responding with Answers 2 or 3, he’d be angry. “That’s the problem,” he said, “with a multiple-choice test.”
Visit the National Coalition Against Censorship site for more information on this and other stories, and suggestions on What You Can Do.