Excised by the Language Police!

Items Deleted from a Doomed Fourth-Grade Reading Test

Most of the work of the language police goes on behind securely closed doors. In her book, Ravitch relies largely on caches of private documents that became public thanks to court cases.

But as a member of the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB), charged by President Clinton with developing national tests in reading and math, she was treated to a unique, insider's look at the tests' vetting process. Though Congress never agreed to support the national tests and they were never given, the tests went through a thorough, rather typical, development process, including the review of each potential test item by a "bias and sensitivity review" panel. Though the reviewed questions had previously been approved by numerous educational experts, including members of the NAGB, the panel eliminated many of them on the grounds that they were biased or insensitive. Ravitch was baffled by many of their decisions—and even more by the logic of their thinking. We think you will be too.


By Diane Ravitch

So what did the bias and sensitivity reviewers recommend? The only way to explain their strained interpretations is to give actual examples. I cannot reproduce the stories because some of them may yet appear one day as test passages, but I will paraphrase the story sufficiently so that the reader may judge whether the charge of bias is persuasive. The examples, I believe, will demonstrate that the concept of bias has become detached from its original meaning and has been redefined into assumptions that defy common sense.

Women and Patchwork Quilting

The bias and sensitivity reviewers rejected a passage about patchwork quilting by women on the western frontier in the mid-19th century. The passage explained that mothers in that time taught their daughters to sew, and together they made quilts for the girl's dowry when she married. Quilting was an economic necessity because it saved money, and there were no factory-made quilts available until the end of the 19th century. The passage briefly explained how quilts were assembled and described them as works of art. The information in the passage was historically accurate, but the bias and sensitivity panel (as well as the "content expert panel") objected to the passage because it contained stereotypes of females as "soft" and "submissive." Actually, the passage did nothing of the sort. It was a description of why quilting was important to women on the frontier and how it was done. Nothing in the passage excluded the possibility that mothers and daughters were riding the range, plowing the fields, and herding cattle during the day. The reviewers objected to the portrayal of women as people who stitch and sew and who were concerned about preparing for marriage. Historical accuracy was no defense for this representation of women and girls, which they deemed stereotypical.

Class Distinction in the Ancient World

The bias panel did not like a story about growing up in ancient Egypt. The story contrasted how people's ways of living varied in accordance with their wealth and status. Some lived in palaces, others were noblemen, others were farmers or city workers. The size and grandeur of one's house, said the story, depended on family wealth. To the naked eye, the story was descriptive, not judgmental. But the bias and sensitivity reviewers preferred to eliminate it, claiming that references to wealth and class distinctions had an "elitist" tone. The fact that these class distinctions were historically accurate was irrelevant to the reviewers. In the world that they wanted children to read about, class distinctions did not exist—not now nor in the past. The desire to rewrite history is one that continually plagues bias reviewers.

The Even Exchange

This story came from a children's book by an African-American author. It was about an African-American girl who wanted to learn how to jump rope like the other girls in her neighborhood. She meets a neighbor who is an expert at jumping rope, but who is attending summer school because she is not very good at math. The new girl is good at math so the two agree to teach each other what they do best. The bias reviewers did not like this story at all. They found that it had serious bias problems because it showed an African-American girl who was weak in math and was attending summer school. The fact that this character thought of herself as not very good at math was also deeply offensive and stereotypical, the bias reviewers believed. Even though the author was African American and her book was intended to bolster the self-esteem of black girls, it did not carry any weight with the bias panel. African-American children could be portrayed only in a positive light. Anything that showed weakness suggested negative stereotyping. In this case, one African-American girl was good at math, and the other was not. So far as I could tell, the story showed human variability, not negative racial stereotyping, with each girl displaying different weaknesses and different strengths.

The Silly Old Lady

The bias panel rejected a passage about a silly old woman who keeps piling more and more gadgets on her bicycle until it is so overloaded that it tumbles over. The language was clever, the illustrations were amusing, and the story was higher in literary quality than the other fourth-grade reading passages proposed for the test. But the bias panel rejected it. They felt that it contained a negative stereotype of an eccentric old woman who constantly changed her mind; apparently women, and especially women of a certain age, must be depicted only in a positive light. Why would it upset or distract fourth-grade children to see an older woman acting eccentrically or changing her mind? The bias panel thought that children would get the wrong idea about older women if they read such a story. They might conclude that all women of a certain age behaved in this way.

The Blind Mountain Climber

One of the stranger recommendations of the bias and sensitivity panel involved a true story about a heroic young blind man who hiked to the top of Mount McKinley, the highest peak in North America. The story described the dangers of hiking up an icy mountain trail, especially for a blind person. The panel voted 12-11 to eliminate this inspiring story. First, the majority maintained that the story contained "regional bias" because it was about hiking and mountain climbing, which favors students who live in regions where those activities are common. Second, they rejected the passage because it suggested that people who are blind are somehow at a disadvantage compared to people who have normal sight—that they are "worse off" and have a more difficult time facing dangers than those who are not blind.

"Regional bias," in this instance, means that children should not be expected to read or comprehend stories set in unfamiliar terrain. A story that happened in a desert would be "biased" against children who have never lived in a desert, and a story set in a tropical climate would be biased against those who have never lived in a tropical climate. Consider the impoverishment of imagination that flows from such assumptions: No reading passage on a test may have a specific geographical setting; every event must occur in a generic locale. Under these assumptions, no child should be expected to understand a story set in a locale other than the one that he or she currently lives in or in a locale that has no distinguishing characteristics.

Even more peculiar is the assumption by the panel's majority that it is demeaning to applaud a blind person for overcoming daunting obstacles, like climbing a steep, icy mountain trail. It is not unreasonable, I believe, to consider blindness to be a handicap for a person facing physical danger. By definition, people who are blind cannot see as much or as well as people who have sight. Is it not more difficult to cope with dangerous situations when one cannot see? Yet, perversely, the bias and sensitivity panel concluded that this story celebrating a blind athlete's achievements and his heroism was biased against people who are blind. Blindness, apparently, should be treated as just another personal attribute, like the color of one's hair or one's height. In the new meaning of bias, it is considered biased to acknowledge that lack of sight is a disability.

No More Owls

The passage about owls was like a children's encyclopedia entry. It described how their keen eyesight and hearing enabled them to hunt at night for rodents. When I saw that this passage was rejected, I imagined that it was because of the violence associated with hunting (although that's how the owl survives). I was wrong. The passage was rejected because a Native-American member of the bias committee said that owls are taboo for the Navajos. Consequently, the entire committee agreed that the passage should be dropped. The test publisher added a notation that the owl is associated with death in some other cultures and should not be mentioned anymore, neither in texts nor in illustrations.

Here is a classic problem presented by today's bias and sensitivity review process. If any cultural group attributes negative connotations to anything, or considers it taboo or offensive, then that topic will not be referred to, represented, described, or illustrated on tests. But owls exist. They are real birds. They are not creatures of the imagination. Nevertheless, to avoid giving offense, the tests will pretend that owls don't exist. Owls are to be deleted and never again mentioned to the highly vulnerable and sensitive American schoolchild.


Diane Ravitch is research professor of education at New York University and nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. During President George H.W. Bush's administration, she was assistant secretary for educational research and improvement in the U.S. Department of Education; President Bill Clinton appointed her to the National Assessment Governing Board. Ravitch's reputation as a leading education historian was solidified with Left Back: A Century of Battles Over School Reform, one of several books she has written on education. This article is excerpted with permission from The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn, Random House: New York, 2003, by arrangement with Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House.

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American Educator, Summer 2003