Censorship on NY Tests

K-12 Testing

In June, 1999, the New York State Education Department (SED) began administering a six-hour English Language Arts (ELA) Regents exam all students would have to pass to graduate from a public high school. In early 2002, Jeanne Heifetz, co-chair of the New York Parents’ Coalition to End High-Stakes Testing, discovered that literary passages on these exams by the likes of Frank Conroy, Kofi Annan, Anne Lamott, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and B.B. King had been censored.


The SED had used “Sensitivity Review Guidelines” to remove references to race, sex, violence, drinking, and religion, as well as mild profanity, without indicating that texts in all ten of the exams it had administered had been altered. For example, a passage from Annie Dillard’s memoir about the segregated world of her childhood appeared with the words “white” and “Negro” removed, rendering incomprehensible the depiction of her dawning awareness of the unfairness of that world.


At the same time, the SED was routinely violating its own “Sensitivity Guidelines” for English Language Learners and low-income students. For example, tests required students to analyze an article about heating costs in private homes and a 16th century text written in complex, arcane English.


A coalition of education and civil liberties organizations, including FairTest, wrote to State Education Commissioner Richard P. Mills protesting the censorship, as did many of the authors whose works were affected. The SED initially defended its policy. But two days after the organizations held a press conference, the SED declared it now understood that censoring literature without the authors’ permission was wrong. Despite the policy change, three of the four essay questions on the June 2002 ELA test contained censored material.


• For more information, see the National Coalition Against Censorship www.ncac.org and the New York Performance Standards Consortium http://www.performanceassessment.org.