Follow-up Letter to the State Education Department
James A. Kadamus, Deputy Commissioner
Office for Elementary, Middle, Secondary & Continuing Education
State Education Dept. Room 875 EBA
University of the State of New York
Albany, NY 12234
Dear Mr. Kadamus:
We are in receipt of your letter in defense of the construction of the June 2002 and August 2002 (and, we presume, the January 2003) English Language Arts exams. Unfortunately, the explanations offered do not answer our concerns; indeed, either the old Sensitivity Review Guidelines are now masquerading as editing for length, or the exams continue to display unacceptably low standards of literary scholarship.
First, the number of words excised is irrelevant to the definition of censorship, which can occur as a result of removal or alteration of individual words from the original text, as well as deletion of entire sections. Therefore, the claim that something has been “edited for length” does not automatically answer the question or justify the deletions of whole paragraphs. The authors whose works have been distorted by removal of entire paragraphs object just as strongly to the expurgation of their works as those whose works have suffered cuts of only individual words.
The critical issue is whether the changes alter the content or message in important respects. In the most recent exams, content has been affected by the changes, and in much the same way as was routine prior to August 2002: paragraphs excised on these exams “for length” would also have been cut under the old Sensitivity Review Guidelines. In addition to the cuts on the June and August exams, which we outlined in earlier correspondence, the January 2003 exam cut references to bigamy, infidelity, divorce, illegitimacy, and single mothers (in the speech from Emeline Pankhurst); and in the piece on hurricanes, a paragraph on the human cost of Hurricane Mitch, described as a “panorama of death, desolation, and ruin throughout the natural territory.” After so many years of inappropriate censorship of literature, the burden is on the State Education Department to demonstrate that the Sensitivity Review Guidelines have not simply been disguised as “editing for length.”
Moreover, even the rationale now offered by the State does not explain the tidying up of the paragraph from Franz Kafka on the August exam. Surely an extra 71 words would not have made the quotation prohibitively long. What other rationale can there have been other than a continuation of the practice of censoring references to violence, suicide, and God?
In the case of poetry, ordinarily literary integrity requires that the unit of meaning must be the poem as a whole. But even editing for length does not explain the truncated, re-punctuated, rewritten, and mis-attributed version of Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” on the January exam. Excerpting (without acknowledgment) 9 lines of a 37-line poem is absurd and unjustifiable, given that the length of the original is not excessive. The substitution of “friend” for “love” in the excerpt, however, reveals the pretextual nature of the State’s explanations.
As a teacher quoted in the New York Times observed, the misquoted line is perhaps one of the most familiar in 19th-century English poetry. The poem is so widely anthologized (an Internet search turns up 3,400 references to it) that it strains credibility to think the only source available to the SED was a 1969 anthology. It is equally incredible that no one involved in the test’s construction noticed the alteration, especially since the Department has publicly pledged to cease the use of expurgated literary passages.
Presumably, a central goal of education is to teach students the importance of the proper attribution of sources. The “Listening Section” of the August exam violates that standard repeatedly, as we pointed out to you in our earlier correspondence, and raises serious questions about the standards in place at the SED. As you know, the “speech” mis-attributed the words of four speakers. Commissioner Mills acknowledges only that “we incorrectly identified a person as the narrator when he was actually the host of the program in which the script was used,” when in fact the passage also mis-attributed the words of three scholars in addition to the narrator. (See also Michael Winerip’s article in the New York Times on January 8, 2003, making this point.)
We doubt the sources whose words were thus mis-attributed would be mollified to know that this made for a more convenient test item. Indeed, your letter seems to assume that ease of test-taking and test construction is important enough to justify censorship. Ease and convenience, however, do not justify a practice by educators which, if used by students, would be condemned. Surely the Department can find a more pedagogically-sound way to create test questions. Moreover, your response to our criticism of the many altered texts on these exams – that students on field tests were able to answer the questions correctly – begs the question entirely. At best, it demonstrates how little students have learned, if they fail to recognize that works by some of the world’s most well-known authors have been bowdlerized.
If the state insists on subjecting students to high stakes tests, at a minimum the tests must be fair, pedagogically sound, and conform to the standards of scholarship demanded of the test-takers. The English Language Arts tests have failed to meet these standards for at least three years. There is no excuse for continuing to require students to take a test that does not meet minimal standards. The State should suspend use of the ELA; failure to do so will reveal that New York educational officials knowingly subject students to tests that censor literary passages for content, employ shoddy scholarship, and are educationally unsound and intellectually dishonest.
Joan E. Bertin
Executive Director, National Coalition Against Censorship
Co-chair, Parents’ Coalition Against High-Stakes Testing
Executive Director, New York Civil Liberties Union
Co-chair, New York Performance Standards Consortium
cc: Members of the Board of Regents
Commissioner Richard Mills
Assemblyman Steven Sanders
Senator Stephen M. Saland