The Elderly Man and the Sea? Test Sanitizes Literary Texts|
By N. R. KLEINFIELD
New York Times
June 2, 2002
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
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, the United Nations 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 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
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
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
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
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
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!"
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
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
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?"
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