NYCLU and Coalition of Groups Demand End to Censorship on New York's English Exams

Affiliate: ACLU of New York
June 3, 2002 12:00 am

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NEW YORK–At a news conference today, a diverse ad-hoc coalition including the New York Civil Liberties Union denounced the State Board of Regents and State Education Commissioner Richard Mills for engaging in censorship on the statewide English Language Arts exam.

This exam, which the Commissioner and the Board of Regents require public high school students to take, sanitizes and butchers the literary passages the students must read and analyze. Out of twenty-six prose passages used in the exam over the past three years, twenty were surreptitiously censored to remove all references to race, religion, sexuality, or anything even mildly sensitive. Since 1999, public school students have been required to pass the exam in order to graduate high school.

“”This censorship is incompatible with First Amendment principles,”” said Donna Lieberman, Executive Director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. “”It imposes a bizarre form of orthodoxy that leaves no room for diverse cultures and ideas. The New York State Board of Regents has managed to violate the voice and intentions of writers ranging from Chekhov to B.B. King. Students engaging in this kind of alteration would be expelled.”

The coalition, which include free speech, civil rights and parent/teacher organizations, as well as writers, scholars and publishers, demanded that Commissioner Mills immediately halt further testing using the butchered passages. The groups also called upon the state legislature to hold public hearings to examine who recommended, authorized and approved the censorship and whether those responsible were fit to serve in any educational capacity.

To make matters worse, the groups said, the doctored passages are used for test preparation in high schools across the state. The censored passages include works by Isaac Bashevis Singer, Annie Dillard, Anton Chekhov, and William Maxwell, as well as writings by B.B. King and a speech of United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan.

The State Education Department has said it bases censorship of literary works and other writings on so-called Sensitivity Review Guidelines, which purport to eliminate material that is “inappropriate for use in an examination.”

“The test’s use of expurgated literary passages is a form of censorship that distorts the content and meaning of the original works,” said Joan Bertin, Executive Director of the National Coalition Against Censorship. “The exam provides an object lesson in shoddy scholarship and intellectual dishonesty, ” she added. “And public hearings are essential to determine how such a thing could happen.”

The butchery of literary passages was first detected by Jeanne Heifetz, co-chair of the Parents’ Coalition Against High Stakes Testing, in conjunction with the New York Performance Standards Consortium. She then researched and uncovered the pattern of wholesale censorship.

“What possessed the State Education Department to remove all mention of race from Annie Dillard’s sensitive writing about her experiences as a white child who regularly visited a library in an African-American neighborhood?”” Heifetz asked. “”Without that critical piece of information, how are students supposed to understand — much less write about — the way these experiences awakened Dillard’s sense of social justice? This exam is hazardous to children’s intellectual health. It shows such dishonesty on the part of the State Education Department that parents should also question the State’s qualifications to require ‘high-stakes’ testing.”

Ann Cook, co-chair of the New York Performance Standards Consortium, which organized the ad-hoc coalition, added, “This is the imposition of standards by people who have no standards. One has to ask, who is testing the testers? I would give Commissioner Mills an ‘F’ in accountability.”

The 32 public schools in the New York Performance Standards Consortium obtained a waiver in 1995 to bypass the Regents’ exams and to use instead a performance assessment system that requires in-depth analytical essays on complete works of literature and oral examination of students by outside examiners. The Consortium has been battling the Education Department in court over the Department’s attempt to overturn the waiver.

Cathy Popkin, Lionel Trilling Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University, called the State Education Department practice of censorship “unthinkable,” an “embarrassment” and “the practice of fools.” Professor Popkin, questioning the very capacity of the State to evaluate its students, said in a letter to Commissioner Mills, ” The thought that someone (or some body of ‘educators’) so evidently lacking in intelligence should be entrusted with testing our children makes me shudder.” Her letter also stated, “As educators we must set and maintain standards of behavior and honesty for the students under our charge. Not only do they deserve it, but our society cannot endure unless these values are instilled and upheld.”

Larry Siems, Executive Director of PEN American Center, said, “First Amendment principles hold that government officials have no business censoring literary works. All great literature will inevitably contain some material that may offend someone.”

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