PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The School Committee is condemning a racially insensitive question on the MCAS.
But school officials aren't sure what the best remedy to the situation will be. School administrators are now crafting a letter to state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley to have it on record that the Pittsfield School Department believes the question should not have been on the test and that the vetting of the questions failed.
"At the very least we are sharing with the commonwealth and with the community that this is an unacceptable question," said Mayor Linda Tyer, who sits on the School Committee.
The question on the 10th-grade Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System exam asks students to write a journal entry as if they were a racist character in a book. Students were asked to read a passage from "The Underground Railroad" by Colson Whitehead and then re-write the story as if they were the character who betrays the escaping slaves.
"It looks and feels and shows itself like a creative writing assignment. I think the real point is to present something from a point of view other than your own," said Superintendent Jason McCandless.
But to be historically accurate, the students would have had to use racially charged and disparaging language with a fear that they could get in trouble. Or avoid the historical accuracy and potentially lose points on the test.
The exercise was a traumatic experience for many in the midst of a test that would determine whether or not the student would be able to graduate.
"Obviously there is a serious problem with the question," said School Committee member William Cameron.
Cameron said the "high stakes" of the test is not the place for such exercises, and he questioned how it even fit in what the state is testing students on. He said the writing exercise of empathizing with others is a good thing, and said even the author had to get in the mind of a racist character when writing, but it should not be a test.
In a draft of a letter to the commissioner, McCandless echoed that sentiment writing, "a high stakes test is not the place to conduct controversial, insensitive, or spiteful thought exercises that ask students to get into the head of a character that most readers would find reprehensible were they given her full context. Tests are designed at great effort and expense to ascertain what students know and what students are able to do. Tests are designed at great effort and expense by professional psychometricians to help teachers, principals, schools and districts know how to serve their children better. To include material which in and of itself serves to distract and traumatize is highly inappropriate and certainly has the potential to influence students' interest, attentiveness, and intellectual energy brought to the remainder of the test."
Further, Cameron said the question was more of a creative writing one which isn't what MCAS tests.
"It strikes me as an assessment that is beyond the scope of what this test is supposed to be about," he said.
Schools are not allowed to see the questions on the test but this year students across the state voiced concern with this question. Following the outcry, Commissioner Riley pulled the question from the exam.
"That is a level of aggressive, positive leadership that is rather extraordinary in a bureaucracy like DESE," McCandless said of the fairly swift action Riley had taken to remove it.
The views have been somewhat divided on the issue and a potential remedy to the situation has numerous negative ramifications to the students who took it.
The Massachusetts Teachers Association, Boston Teachers Union, the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Education Justice Alliance and the New England Area Conference of the NAACP called on the state to invalidate the results of the English exam.
But the local School Committee isn't sure that is the best solution because there are scholarships based on results. Cameron said there may be students who do well in English whose final score would be harmed if that portion is tossed out.
"There are many students who stand to benefit financially from their performance on the test," Cameron said, particularly citing the Adams Scholarships.
Another alternative would be to have the students take the entire exam again in 11th grade. But even that can seem to be punishment by having the students have to go through the highly stressful exam a second time.
"It is an error on their part so why penalize students?" said School Committee member Daniel Elias, suggesting that all students get full credit for the question instead.
School Committee member Joshua Cutler said throwing the entire exam out would create "unfathomable logistical nightmares" because such things as the ability to graduate are based on the exam. He too isn't sure what the best solution to the problem is but said the issue shows that the state needs to focus more on cultural competency.
The city has been focusing on cultural competency for years and Cutler said the state needs to do the same.
"It is part of who we are. It has been part of the district improvement plan for a number of years," Cutler said. "We are working to invest more in it, not going away from it."
School Committee member Dennis Powell felt the whole vetting process of the questions failed. He said there were objections early in the process that were overlooked and not taken seriously. Powell said it is troubling that even after it was objected to, the exercise was still rolled out to be field tested and ultimately on the test.
"Because we don't see the test and we aren't allowed to see the test in advance, we don't know the questions," Powell said, questioning what else could be in the exam.
While the School Committee doesn't know what the right solution is, the members feel they need to say something so that it doesn't happen again. Tyer said the city at least owes it to the students who were distressed by the question to condemn it.
"We do need to make a statement about our community values," she said.
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