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State's promise to bar edited test passages repeats 2002 vow

Responding to criticism about the now-famous “Hare and the Pineapple” story that appeared on last week’s eighth-grade reading test, state education officials today made a promise: State tests will no longer include literary works that have been revised.

“We will use only authentic passages, passages that have been published and not edited,” Kristen Huff, a senior fellow for testing, told members of the Board of Regents during their monthly meeting this morning.

If Huff’s promise sounds familiar, that’s because it is. Exactly a decade ago, then-State Education Commissioner Richard Mills made the same vow.

”It is important that we use literature on the tests without changes in the passages,” Mills said at the time, according to a report in the New York Times. ”I have looked carefully at the Education Department’s current practices and the concerns of the writers and have directed that these changes be made.”

Mills was reacting to an expose, engineered by an assiduous Brooklyn parent, that showed that the English Regents exam taken by high school students across the state contained oddly edited passages. The editing had stripped the texts of “virtually any reference to race, religion, ethnicity, sex, nudity, alcohol, even the mildest profanity and just about anything that might offend someone for some reason,” the Times reported in 2002.

The pineapple story does not appear to have been changed for the sake of political correctness. The changes replaced a rabbit with a hare and an eggplant with a pineapple and added a storyline about the pineapple’s literal and metaphorical sleeves. Together, the tweaks amounted to a piece that the original author, absurdist children’s writer Daniel Pinkwater, said “makes even less sense than mine.”

Pearson, the company that produced the test that included the pineapple passage, won a five-year contract with the state this year. The contract came with the express requirement that tests not contain unnecessarily confusing language or questions designed to trip students up, and starting next year, the content is supposed to get even tougher to reflect new curriculum standards. The new standards, known as the Common Core, require students to read “authentic” reading passages, and Huff said today that next year’s tests would pull directly from both fictional and nonfictional works.

It would be “a simple matter” for the state to tell Pearson not to use any revised literary passages on New York tests, according to Diane Ravitch, the education historian who has criticized states and test-makers for ceding to pressure for political correctness.

State officials have not yet responded to questions about whether those instructions were given in 2002 or about the exams to which Mills’ promise had applied. At the time, Regents exams taken in high school were under scrutiny, not the reading and math tests given in grades three through eight.

But Ravitch offered an explanation for why she thought education officials today restated a 2002 commitment.

“I guess they just plain forgot that they made a promise,” she said.

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