Dear Commissioner Mills, Chancellor Bennett, Senator Kuhl, and Assemblyman Sanders:
We have previously written to object to the routine censorship of literary passages on New York State English Language Arts Regents exams, which is questionable on pedagogical, intellectual and legal grounds. In our earlier correspondence, we documented numerous examples in which material was deleted apparently to eliminate any reference to race, religion, ethnicity, or other "sensitive" or potentially controversial subjects.
We were gratified when the Commissioner, Chancellor, and other officials recognized, in Assemblyman Steve Sanders' words, that this was an "ill conceived policy" and that "new guidelines" would "ensure that this practice not be continued in future Regents Exams, as follows:
- words or phrases will not be deleted or changed in passages
- complete paragraphs or sections of a piece of literature will be used
- deletions of paragraphs for length will be indicated
- the author and title will always be cited the former "sensitivity guidelines" will not be used and that
- accountability has been changed to ensure these directives are carried out."
The Commissioner announced that these changes were already in place and would be reflected in the June exam. Our review, however, indicates this did not occur. At least three passages were expurgated: an excerpt about the Dust Bowl, an article about the sleep habits of teenagers, and a short story by Isaac Asimov were altered, without indication, based on "sensitive" content.
The Department of Education had ample time to correct the problem before the August exam, but again failed to do so. Each section contains at least one passage plainly edited to delete certain types of content, including references to death, violence, religion, and errors by government officials. The terms "male menopause," "sex appeal," and "antique syringe" were likewise expunged. Ellipses appeared in some cases to indicate that material had been deleted, but not in all.
As before, many of the deletions materially distorted the meaning of the passages, in some cases making it difficult or impossible to answer the questions posed. A literary passage attributed to Kafka is virtually unrecognizable to anyone who had read the original; instead of the "complete paragraph" promised by the State Education Department, the exam sanitizes the first and last sentences of Kafka's original paragraph and removes the middle three sentences entirely. Other alterations were merely inaccurate, resulting in the mis-attribution of authorship, incorrect titles, and other errors.
As public officials responsible for the education of New York's students, you have been singularly unresponsive to the deficiencies in the exams you require students—our children—to take in order to graduate from high school. Chancellor Bennett has refused either to meet with concerned members of the public or to hold public hearings on these admitted problems in the Regents exams. He instead stated that "he and the Board of Regents are satisfied that Commissioner Mills is dealing appropriately with the matter…." Whether the public should share his and the Board's confidence is another matter.
Assemblyman Sanders stated that "accountability has been changed to ensure that these [new] directives are carried out." The question is: what accountability? The Commissioner reports to the Board of Regents, and the Board reports—apparently—to no one.
This archaic and undemocratic system has serious consequences for New York students. The time is long past for public hearings to address the lack of accountability in New York's educational policy-making system and its effects on the quality of education.