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Teachers' unions and advocacy groups on Wednesday demanded that state education officials invalidate an MCAS exam after the test contained a now-removed question asking students to write from the perspective of an "openly racist" character in the novel "The Underground Railroad."
After students raised concerns last week about a section on the 10th-grade English Language Arts exam, the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) notified schools that the question would not be scored and should not be included on exams yet to be administered.
However, several groups said Wednesday that the response was insufficient and asked instead for the entire test to be nullified.
Massachusetts Teachers Association President Merrie Najimy said students were so upset by the question that their results on the rest of the exam would be affected.
"The problem is the test itself," Najimy told the News Service. "Whatever DESE decides to do, all students need to be held harmless across the state and the test itself needs to be ruled invalid."
Five groups — the MTA, the Boston Teachers Union, the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Education Justice Alliance and the New England Area Conference of the NAACP — joined in a Wednesday afternoon press release urging the state to pull the exam.
The controversy stems from what they said was a question about Colson Whitehead's Pulitzer Prize-winning 2016 novel "The Underground Railroad," which chronicles two slaves fleeing an alternate-history Georgia plantation in the 19th century. According to the groups, the exam asked students to "write a journal entry from the perspective of the character Ethel, who is openly racist and betrays slaves trying to escape."
"They had to jump in the shoes of a character who harbored racist notions toward the enslaved character in the book," Najimy said. "It was traumatic for them, so this group of educators had to conduct counseling in their classrooms as a way of helping their students cope."
Education officials put the question through its usual vetting process, DESE said. The prompt was included in field tests with more than 1,100 students last year, and the department's bias committee then approved it for scored exams.
No issues were raised until Friday, the department said, when several students in Boston indicated discomfort. DESE Commissioner Jeff Riley decided on Sunday to pull the question from all exams, so those who already took the test will not have the question count and those yet to take the test will not be asked to answer it.
"Out of an abundance of caution and in the interest of student fairness, we have decided not to use the results from this particular question as part of students’ scores," Riley wrote in a Sunday letter to superintendents and charter school leaders. "The issue of what is appropriate content for future tests warrants further discussion among students, parents, teachers, administrators, and the public at large. We plan to have such a discussion at the appropriate time."
Riley's letter did not detail the question itself or the specific concerns raised, but instead referenced reports from administrators that "students had encountered material that affected their ability to be tested fairly."
Juan Cofield, president of the NAACP's New England Area Conference, said in the release that the state needs to improve its oversight process.
"This issue brings into question the matter of who is reviewing and approving the test before it is administered," Cofield said. "The lack of cultural sensitivity and adequate supervision is a serious matter for all communities and certainly for communities of color."
The MTA also cited the incident as more evidence for the union's frequent argument that state officials should implement a moratorium on "high-stakes testing."
Neither the MTA nor DESE provided a picture of the question or its exact wording.
The press release from the unions and advocates, however, included a statement from the book's author slamming the exam.
"Whoever came up with the question has done a great disservice to these kids, and everyone who signed off on it should be ashamed," Whitehead said in the release.
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