John Leo
Exam questions shouldn't make students uncomfortable, says a New York state education official. So should test-takers have to read that Kofi Annan, the U.N. secretary general, admires "fine California wine and seafood"? Of course not. Some student somewhere might be uncomfortable reading about wine admiration. So on an English exam that all New York high school students must take to graduate, the passage was altered. Annan was quoted as admiring only the seafood, not the wine. (Possible student discomfort with seafood and California went totally unaddressed.)

"Sensitivity" censorship is a huge industry in the world of education. Textbook publishers and testmakers hire people to draw up sensitivity guidelines. In school systems there are more people who apply guidelines, and still more who review and argue about the censorship process. Reviewers debated whether to censor a reference to Mount Rushmore, since Lakota Indians believe the monument intrudes on their sacred ground. "Adopt-a-highway" litter control programs are controversial, too. They may offend adopted children.

Coping with this nonsense is usually the lonely work of conservatives. But this time even the ACLU and The New York Times were outraged, so the state had to back down. (The Times headline, referring to Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea," was "The Elderly Man and the Sea"?)

Jeanne Heifetz, a Brooklyn woman who opposes all high-stakes testing, broke the story by showing that the state's Regents tests in English have been cleansed of nearly all references to race, religion, gender, nudity, alcohol, age, and even the mildest profanity. On New York tests, when fictional characters get really angry and lose control, they shout "Heck!"

Almost all references to Judaism were removed from a passage by Isaac Bashevis Singer. A Hispanic author's reference to a "Gringo lady" became "an American lady." Elsewhere a "skinny" boy was converted into a "thin" one, and a "fat" boy into a "heavy" one. Racial references were removed from a moving passage by Annie Dillard on what she learned as a rare white visitor to a library in a black neighborhood.

John Leo

John Leo is editor of and a former contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report.

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