Texas drops play from test after controversy over dialogue

"For God's sake!"

The three-word exclamation is a piece of dialogue from Game Theory, a short play written by Peter Sagal, perhaps better known as host of NPR's news quiz show, Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me!

Last month, Sagal learned that his play, about a confrontation at an executive boot camp, would be included in a test given to students in Texas schools. But a problem arose when the state wanted to edit out "for God's sake" and Sagal objected.

Sagal griped about it online, and now the deal to use his work has been scrapped because it's no longer a "secure testing item," according to state education officials.

"It never occurred to me that I had to keep it secret," Sagal said.

Sagal wrote a post on his blog last week about how test maker Pearson Education wanted to include his play as part of an end-of-course English III assessment for Texas schools.

"For ten years to come, high school students taking this exam would read my play, and then have to answer questions about it. Neat," Sagal wrote.

His excitement turned to confusion when the company told him that the phrase "for God's sake" needed to be cut from the play because it could be deemed offensive by officials at the Texas Education Agency.

Sagal complained on his blog that the request was irrational and indicative of Texas' reputation as "the state that's leading the charge back into the middle ages in terms of educational standards."

Sagal told the Star-Telegram that he has followed the State Board of Education's various curriculum debates for years.

"We had a joke on the show about them excising Thomas Jefferson," Sagal said, referring to a controversy earlier this year in which the state board cut Jefferson from a section on influential philosophers in its social studies standards. The board later put Jefferson back in.

After struggling with the issue and getting advice from fans via Twitter and his blog, Sagal decided that whether or not Texas schoolchildren read his play didn't have anything to do with his difference of opinion regarding other aspects of the state's curriculum.

"I don't think I was going to help the cause of improving the education in Texas, if that's something I could even imagine doing, by keeping my play from Texas students," Sagal said.

He ultimately agreed to change "for God's sake" to "for Pete's sake."

'Being extra cautious'

TEA spokeswoman Debbie Graves Ratcliffe said the agency has a policy of keeping offensive language out of test material. There's no explicit list of words or phrases that can't be used, she said.

"I'm a little surprised with this particular phrase, but I guess our testing company was being extra cautious," Ratcliffe said.

Sagal's public comments, however, mean the deal is off.

"We're big fans of Peter Sagal, but unfortunately this won't show up on any tests," Ratcliffe said. "It's no longer a secure testing item. We could have people practicing on that play all year so they can answer that question."

Licensing fee

Sagal said no one had told him that he had to keep the arrangement secret. He was supposed to receive a $2,000 licensing fee for the use of his play, he said. He had initially planned to donate the money to the Texas Freedom Network, an education watchdog group that has challenged the influence of the board's religious conservatives.

He changed his mind after learning that Jo Carson, a friend and writer based in Tennessee, is struggling to cover the costs of treatment for colon cancer. Sagal said he planned to announce the donation on his blog and encourage others to donate to a fund for her. "I'll make the donation anyway, but this just seemed kind of convenient and ironic and lovely," Sagal said.

This just wasn't Sagal's week. On Wednesday, the Chicago resident was hit by a car while biking. He spoke to the Star-Telegram from a hospital bed. He was already on a summer hiatus from Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me! and expects to be back hosting the show in the first week of September.

Aman Batheja, 817-390-7695