How New York Exams Rewrite Literature (A Sequel)|
By MICHAEL WINERIP
New York Times
This article first appeared on January 8, 2003
THEY promised they'd stop it, but they did it again.
Last June, after a parent caught them red-handed, New York
State education officials promised to stop sanitizing
literary excerpts on the state high school Regents exams.
But a review of the most recent state exam, given in
August, reveals that they did it again, this time altering
Franz Kafka and sanitizing Aldous Huxley.
Worse yet, a historian quoted on the exam believes that a
test question based on his work has more than one correct
answer. If he is right, it may mean that some high school
students who failed the August test actually passed and
could be eligible for a diploma.
You may remember the front-page account last June. Jeanne
Heifetz, the parent of a New York City senior, discovered
that state education officials had been doctoring the
literary reading samples on state tests to make sure
nothing offensive was included. It didn't matter if it was
Anton Chekhov or Isaac Bashevis Singer, state bureaucrats
removed references to race, religion, ethnicity, sex,
nudity and even alcohol. "Jews" and "gentiles" were excised
from Singer. An Annie Dillard excerpt about growing up
white in a black area was purged of racial references.
In exposing this tomfoolery, Ms. Heifetz, who has an
English degree from Harvard, wanted people to see what she
believes: that the standardized tests so many politicians
now worship are hardly rigorous and actually undermine
There was an outcry from writers, academics and groups like
the National Coalition Against Censorship, and state
officials promised to end such practices.
Not quite. 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.
It's worse. Ms. Heifetz believes that one test question
based on the influenza reading has three correct answers,
not the single answer the state scoring sheet indicates.
Question 2 says, "The speaker implies that the war effort
affected the epidemic by: 1) increasing the chance of
exposure." This is the answer the state wants, and it is
correct, since the war forced soldiers into cramped troop
ships, helping spread the disease. But Answer 2,
"decreasing health care funds," also appears to be implied,
since, as the excerpt points out, "practically every
available doctor and nurse had been sent to Europe,"
leaving Americans at home badly underserved.
And Answer 3, "restricting the flow of information," also
seems plausible. As the excerpt indicates, President
Woodrow Wilson had to make a very tough - and secret -
decision to send reinforcements overseas on those troop
ships, even though he knew many would be exposed to
influenza and die.
In the world of make-or-break exams, one question scored
incorrectly can make all the difference in a student's
future. In Massachusetts last month, after a student
discovered there was a second correct answer to a math
question on the state test, 449 students who had flunked
were suddenly eligible for high school diplomas.
In an interview, James A. Kadamus, deputy New York
education commissioner, disagreed with almost all these
criticisms. He acknowledged that there should have been
ellipses in the shortened Kafka quotation, but said it was
O.K. to change Kafka's words inside the quotation marks
since the exam noted that it was an "adapted quote." The
Huxley and influenza passages were shortened for length, he
said, not sensitivity. And because the influenza passage
was read out loud to students, Mr. Kadamus said, it would
have been too confusing to attribute the quotations to
people who actually spoke them; the passage worked more
smoothly, he said, as a single-person narration.
As for Question 2, he said that if someone like Ms. Heifetz
repeatedly read the excerpt and thought about every little
nuance, she might decide there was more than one correct
answer, but that for students listening to the "overall
flow" of the passage, No. 1 was clearly the best answer.
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."
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