Educational Insensitivity

June 5, 2002

An enterprising parent of a high school senior recently discovered that the literary texts on the New York Regents examinations had been expurgated. Excerpts from the writings of many prominent authors were doctored, without their knowledge or permission, to delete references to religion, profanity, sex, alcohol or other potentially troublesome topics.

The story was a huge embarrassment to the New York State Education Department, which prepares the examinations, and yesterday Richard P. Mills, the state education commissioner, ordered the practice stopped. From now on, all literary passages used on state tests will be unchanged except for length. Mr. Mills is to be commended for this new policy. But the dimensions of this absurd practice reach far beyond the borders of New York, and there are many culprits. Censorship of tests and textbooks is not merely widespread: across the nation, it has become institutionalized.

For decades, American publishers have quietly trimmed sexual and religious allusions from their textbooks and tests. When publishers assemble reading books, they keep a wary eye on states like California, Texas and Florida, where textbooks are adopted for the entire state and any hint of controversy can prevent a book’s placement on the state’s list. In Texas, Florida and other southern states, the religious right objects to any stories that introduce fantasy, witchcraft, the occult, sex or religious practices different from its own. In California, no textbook can win adoption unless it meets the state’s strict demands for gender balance, multicultural representation and avoids mention of unhealthy foods, drugs or alcohol.

Over the past several decades, the nation’s testing industry has embraced censorship. In almost every state, tests are closely scrutinized in an official process known as a bias and sensitivity review. This procedure was created in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s to scrutinize questions for any hint of racial or gender bias. Over the years, every test development company in the nation has established a bias and sensitivity review process to ensure that test questions do not contain anything that might upset students and prevent them from showing their true abilities on a test. Now these reviews routinely expurgate references to social problems, politics, disobedient children or any other potentially controversial topic.

This is the rationale now used within the testing industry to delete references to any topic that someone might find objectionable. As a top official in one of the major testing companies told me: “If anyone objects to a test question, we delete it. Period.”

This self-censorship is hardly a secret. Every major publisher of educational materials uses “bias guidelines,” which list hundreds of words and images that are banned or avoided. Words like “brotherhood” and “mankind” have been banished. A story about mountain climbing may be excluded because it favors test-takers who live near mountains over those who don’t. Older people may not be portrayed walking with canes or sitting in rocking chairs.

I serve on the board of a federal testing agency, the National Assessment Governing Board, which is directly responsible for reviewing all test questions on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. We have learned that bias and sensitivity rules are subject to expansive interpretations. Once reviewers proposed to eliminate a reading passage about Mount Rushmore because the monument offends Lakota Indians, who consider the Black Hills of South Dakota a sacred site.

This censorship is now standard practice in the testing industry and in educational publishing. One way to end it is to expose the practice to public scrutiny, forcing officials like Mr. Mills to abandon it. Another way, adopted by the National Assessment Governing Board, is to review every deletion proposed by those applying bias and sensitivity standards to determine whether it passes the test of common sense. I would also recommend that whenever material is deleted from a literary passage in a test, the omission should be indicated with ellipses.

The bias and sensitivity review process, as it has recently evolved, is an embarrassment to the educational publishing industry. It may satisfy the demands of the religious right (in censoring topics) and of the politically correct left (in censoring language). But it robs our children of their cultural heritage and their right to read—free of censorship.