From: Wade T. Smith (email@example.com)
Date: Wed 08 Jan 2003 - 12:40:14 GMT
How New York Exams Rewrite Literature (A Sequel)
By MICHAEL WINERIP
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
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 academic excellence.
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
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"
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
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
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company
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