The Elderly Man and the Sea? Test Sanitizes Literary Texts
Sun Jun 2, 3:08 PM ET
By N. R. KLEINFIELD The New York Times
At first, Jeanne Heifetz thought she had merely tripped over one of those quirks that occasionally worm their way into standardized tests. Words were missing from a book excerpt she was familiar with on a Regents English exam. But when she discovered a second extensively altered excerpt, she began to wonder, "If there were two, could there be more?" Was something sinister afoot?
So, driven by curiosity and her antipathy to the exams, she rounded up a batch of recent Regents tests, which New York State requires public high school students to take to graduate, and started double-checking the excerpts that serve as the basis for questions. What she found astonished her.
In a feat of literary sleuth work, Ms. Heifetz, the mother of a high school senior and a weaver from Brooklyn, inspected 10 high school English exams from the past three years and discovered that the vast majority of the passages drawn from the works of Isaac Bashevis Singer, Anton Chekhov and William Maxwell, among others had been sanitized of virtually any reference to race, religion, ethnicity, sex, nudity, alcohol, even the mildest profanity and just about anything that might offend someone for some reason. Students had to write essays and answer questions based on these doctored versions versions that were clearly marked as the work of the widely known authors.
In an excerpt from the work of Mr. Singer, for instance, all mention of Judaism is eliminated, even though it is so much the essence of his writing. His reference to "Most Jewish women" becomes "Most women" on the Regents, and "even the Polish schools were closed" becomes "even the schools were closed." Out entirely goes the line "Jews are Jews and Gentiles are Gentiles." In a passage from Annie Dillard's memoir, "An American Childhood," racial references are edited out of a description of her childhood trips to a library in the black section of town where she is almost the only white visitor, even though the point of the passage is to emphasize race and the insights she learned about blacks.
The State Education Department, which prepares the exams, acknowledged modifying excerpts to satisfy elaborate "sensitivity review guidelines" that have been in use for decades, but are periodically revised. It said it did not want any student to feel ill at ease while taking the test.
After making her discovery, Ms. Heifetz contacted most of the affected authors or their publishers, and found them angered that their words had been tampered with without their consent. Word circulated among groups concerned about censorship and literary affairs, and an assortment of them, including the National Coalition Against Censorship, the Association of American Publishers, the New York Civil Liberties Union and PEN, jointly sent a letter on Friday to Richard P. Mills, the state education commissioner, calling for an end to the practice.
The groups, which plan to hold a news conference tomorrow, condemned the editing as intellectually dishonest and a form of censorship that distorts the content and meaning of the works. "Testing students on inaccurate literary passages is an odd approach to measuring academic achievement," the letter said.
The modifications to the passages ranged widely. In the Chekhov story "The Upheaval," the exam takes out the portion in which a wealthy woman looking for a missing brooch strip-searches all of the house's staff members. Students are then asked to use the story to write an essay on the meaning of human dignity.
A paragraph in John Holt's "Learning All the Time" is truncated to eliminate some of the reasons Suzuki violin instruction differs in Japan and the United States, apparently not to offend anyone who might find the particulars somehow insulting. Students are nonetheless then asked to answer questions about those differences.
Certain revisions bordered on the absurd. In a speech by Kofi Annan (news - web sites), the United Nations (news - web sites) secretary general, in addition to deletions about the United States' unpaid debt to the United Nations, any mention of wine and drinking was removed. Instead of praising "fine California wine and seafood," he ends up praising "fine California seafood." In Carol Saline's "Mothers and Daughters" a daughter no longer says she "went out to a bar" with her mother; on the Regents, they simply "went out."
In an excerpt from "Barrio Boy," by Ernesto Galarza (whose name was misspelled on the exam as Gallarzo), a "gringo lady" becomes an "American lady." A boy described as "skinny" became "thin," while another boy who was "fat" became "heavy," adjectives the state deemed less insulting.
"When I saw that," Ms. Heifetz said, "I really thought they had lost their minds."
In undertaking her exploration, Ms. Heifetz was in part motivated by her low regard for the exams, which have long provoked controversy over their worth and prevalence, though she said she had always assumed that they were correctly prepared. Rosa Jurjevics, her daughter, is a senior at the Urban Academy Laboratory High School, a small school on the Upper East Side. It belongs to a consortium of 32 schools that educate largely poor children and that oppose the Regents exams. The consortium had a waiver that excused its students from taking the exams until last June, and it continues to battle the Education Department over the issue.
The latest round of the two-day Regents in English will be administered to seniors on June 18 and 19.
The 10 exams Ms. Heifetz reviewed contained 30 passages, and she found what she considered significant changes in 19, with minor revisions in four others. One short story and four poems appeared verbatim, she said, and she did not bother to investigate two excerpts because she did not find them literary samples to begin with. One was drawn from a motivational speech by Chuck Noll, the former Pittsburgh Steelers coach, and another was a science article on leatherback turtles.
Only once, Ms. Heifetz said, did an exam use an ellipsis to indicate that material had been cut, and in no other way did the exams suggest that words had been substituted.
Roseanne DeFabio, the Education Department's assistant commissioner for curriculum, instruction and assessment, said on Friday, "We do shorten the passages and alter the passages to make them suitable for testing situations." The changes are made to satisfy the sensitivity guidelines the department uses, so no student will be "uncomfortable in a testing situation," she said. "Even the most wonderful writers don't write literature for children to take on a test."
Ms. DeFabio said that as a result of an objection recently received from an author, the department had decided to use ellipses in future exams. She also said she thought it worthwhile that the department consider marking passages that were altered, but did not believe that it was necessary to ask authors' permission to change their work.
One passage was derived from Frank Conroy's memoir, "Stop-Time." The changes include replacing "hell" with "heck" in one sentence and excising references to sex, religion, nudity and potential violence (in the form of the declared intent of two boys to kill a snake) that are essential to an understanding of the passage.
"I was just completely shocked," Mr. Conroy said. "It's going through and taking out the flavor of the month. It's terrible."
A number of the writers and scholars Ms. Heifetz contacted have written indignant letters that have also been submitted to the education commissioner. Mr. Conroy wrote in part: "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?"
Cathy Popkin, Lionel Trilling professor in the humanities at Columbia, wrote: "I implore you to put a stop to the scandalous practice of censoring literary texts, ostensibly in the interest of our students. It is dishonest. It is dangerous. It is an embarrassment. It is the practice of fools."
Ms. Heifetz, 41, of Park Slope, Brooklyn, is married to a publisher and has roots herself in the writing world. She graduated with a degree in English from Harvard and earned a master's degree in English from New York University. In the past, she has worked as a fact checker, writer and editor. She is a co-chairwoman of the Parents' Coalition to End High Stakes Testing, which advocates an alterative to the Regents.
She got onto this literary mischief when she noticed an excerpt on a Regents test identified as being from a speech by the author Anne Lamott. Ms. Heifetz knew her work and doubted that it had been part of a speech. She went to her bookshelf and plucked off a copy of "Bird by Bird," and found the passage, but it did not match the Regents excerpt. Among other things, a line that read "She's gay!" was deleted.
Soon after, Ms. Heifetz looked at another test and saw an excerpt from Isaac Bashevis Singer that seemed incorrect, because it was barren of references to Jews or Gentiles. She checked it and found that it had been substantially changed.
With some help from her husband, Juris Jurjevics, the publisher of Soho Press, she contacted the authors or publishers and found that none had consented to the use or the changes.
Annie Dillard was one of them. Responding to the removal of the racial context of her passage, she wrote to the state, "What could be the purpose of an exercise testing students on such a lacerated passage one which, finally, is neither mine nor true to my lived experience?"