Students and teachers react to removed MCAS question

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The controversial MCAS question excerpted from Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad.” (Photo from Amazon.com)

Sophie Murthy

Many sophomore English teachers at North chose to have an in-class discussion about an essay question on the Grade 10 ELA MCAS, which received many complaints for being insensitive and inappropriate.

The essay question, based on a passage from The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, asked students to write from the perspective of an openly racist woman who is conflicted about helping a runaway teenage slave.

The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) decided March 31 not to score the question. Although students are not typically permitted to talk about the contents of any MCAS test, DESE released the full passage and prompt to the public April 5.

Sophomore Katrina Mastoras said she thought the question was weird when she initially read it on the test. “I was thinking that maybe the MCAS wanted us to think from a different perspective, but it seemed like a really controversial way to do that.”

Mastoras added that although she found the question strange, it didn’t make her feel uncomfortable because she couldn’t relate to it. “The discussion in my class helped a little bit, but my classes are predominantly white, so I couldn’t really understand how it would feel to read that as an African-American person or somebody who could relate to it.”

English teacher Colleen Moore is one of the many teachers who held a discussion about the question in both of her sophomore English classes before the question was publicly released.

“A big part of it is the secrecy around MCAS and that students aren’t allowed to talk about it and the fear around that,” she said. “The idea of feeling safe and going to get help if you need it is really important.”

Sophomore Emma Schwartz said the discussion in her class was helpful in understanding the situation. “It really opened my eyes up to what a lot of students thought when they read the prompt and read the article.” She added, “ I definitely think that it was the right call to discard it, especially because some people said that they really felt uncomfortable answering it.”

For students who want to discuss the issue vice principal Amy Winston suggested talking to a teacher, counselor, or other adult. “The key is going to be getting the message to students that if something makes you uncomfortable, tell an adult. That doesn’t mean talk about it with all your friends.”

She added that it was surprising to see the question on the test at all. “I can’t believe this question made it because it’s so bad. Yet, it went through this really thorough process, so it’s a really fascinating question of how it happened,” Winston said.

Five different committees review the questions, including a bias committee. The questions are tested on students, and reviewed by the committees again, according to Winston. The question, then, made it on the MCAS test.

After the question was removed, the Massachusetts Teachers Association, along with four other groups, publicly called for the entire test to be thrown out.