When 10th-graders sat down for the MCAS this spring, many confronted an essay question that struck them as inappropriate and insensitive: They were asked to write a journal entry from the perspective of a white woman who uses derogatory language toward a runaway slave and is conflicted about helping her.
The essay question — based on a passage from the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Underground Railroad” — sparked a range of questions among students, including whether using racist language would win them points for historical accuracy or deductions for inappropriateness. Some Boston school administrators, including interim Superintendent Laura Perille, contacted state education officials last Friday to voice their objections.
In response, the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education informed superintendents on Sunday that students would not be scored on the question and that students taking the makeup exam this week would be instructed not to answer it — a rare move by the department. Commissioner Jeffrey Riley did not reveal the specific question in his note.
Riley said in an interview this week he took the concerns very seriously and made the decision “after careful reflection and out of an abundance of caution.”
“We, on one hand, want kids to be challenged; we want them to take on tough issues,” Riley said. “On the other hand, we want kids to feel like they are in a safe space.”
Several teachers unions and other organizations blasted the state on Wednesday for the MCAS question and implored officials not to score any exam that included the controversial material.
“For all of the unconscionable aspects of standardized testing, [the state] has imposed a new layer of trauma — particularly on students of color — forcing students to read a tiny excerpt of the book, produce a quick answer about race relations embodying a racist perspective, and then stifle the complicated emotions that emerge,” said Merrie Najimy, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, in a statement.
Raising concerns about MCAS questions can be dicey for students and educators. The state strictly prohibits them from discussing test content with anyone before, during, or after the test. Students who violate the rules could have their test invalidated — requiring 10th-graders to retake it to receive their diplomas.
But many students in Boston and elsewhere found the essay question so troubling they could not hold back their discontent after the test, complaining to teachers at several schools.
The controversy centers around a passage from Colson Whitehead’s novel which chronicles the journey of a young woman, Cora, escaping slavery. Along the way, she seeks refuge from a white woman named Ethel, who is conflicted about hiding Cora in her attic and uses derogatory terms in addressing her.
The state would not release the question or the reading passage. The Globe, however, obtained information about the question and passage via e-mails from concerned school employees and in interviews with students. The Globe is not identifying individual employees or students to avoid the state sanctioning them. The teachers union press release also confirmed details.
Whitehead even weighed in after a teacher reached out to his representatives for comment, writing in an e-mail — confirmed by the Globe through his literary agent — that he was “appalled and disgusted.”
“What kind of idiot would have students imagine the rationalizations of a racist coward who shrinks from moral responsibility?” he wrote. “There are plenty of heroes in the book — black and white — who stand up and do the right thing in the face of terrible consequences; certainly they are more worthy of investigation. Inhabiting characters like Ethel caused me great emotional distress.”
In Boston, students at several high schools shared concerns with teachers who then relayed them to their headmasters. One headmaster rounded up teacher comments in an e-mail sent to Perille that was obtained by the Globe.
“I’m furious that my students started their test day with complicated emotions forced upon them that had nothing to do with the challenges of the test itself,” one teacher wrote.
The teacher also included comments from students, including this one: “While I was taking the test, I thought about other students in other towns taking the test and what they were writing and thinking about people like me. I imagined white students writing negative things about me.”
A 10th-grader at Lexington High School said in an interview that she and her classmates engaged in a conversation after the test, when their teacher asked how the MCAS went.
One student, she said, shared discomfort over answering the essay question, and then others chimed in.
“It was difficult to answer the prompt truthfully because I would have to write something that I didn’t agree with and it was upsetting,” said the student, who is white and wrestled with what language to use. “If you use a slur, will you get points for being historically accurate or deductions for using derogatory language? I didn’t use the words. . . . My friends would write some things and delete it.”
As difficult as it was for her to write, the student said she felt worse for any student who experienced racism being subjected to a question like that.
This isn’t the first time an MCAS question has sparked controversy. For instance, in 2003, state officials tossed out a fourth-grade essay question that asked students to write about a memorable snow day, after some Boston educators complained. Boston had not called a snow day for about two years — meaning many students were probably too young to remember it — while the district also had a fair number of immigrant students who may have never experienced a snow day in their home countries.
The state education department says it thoroughly vets MCAS questions, which are also subject to approval from a bias and sensitivity committee. The essay question for “The Underground Railroad” was approved in 2017 and tried out last spring with 1,100 students in 255 high schools, including 14 in Boston, with no reported problems.
The bias and sensitivity committee reviewed those results before signing off on the question again. Ten of the 15 members on the bias committee identify themselves as people of color, according to the state.
James Morton, vice chair of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, said he supported the commissioner’s decision and was glad students voiced their concerns, noting “as a black man, I live daily under the cloud of oppression, slavery and racism.”
“No malfeasance — but the bias committee missed this,” Morton said in a statement. “I am personally sensitive to the issues raised by the question as I was a kid who wondered if my classmates noticed that I wore the same pants, Monday through Friday, and as a kid who had, as a seventh-grader, been placed in a class for slow-learners and juvenile delinquents.”
Tanisha Sullivan, president of the Boston branch of the NAACP, called for “a full and thorough investigation into how and why the question was even on the test.”
“I would be concerned about the impact on students’ ability to complete the MCAS in a way that allows them to demonstrate their best,” she said.