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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Kathleen Theoharides, secretary of energy and environmental affairs, visits the site of culvert project in Pittsfield being funded through the state's climate readiness program.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Kathleen Theoharides was in Pittsfield on Friday to review a state-funded culvert site and meet with local officials to discuss the state's climate readiness program.
She joined Mayor Linda Tyer at the Churchill Street culvert, a site which recently received grant funding through the state's Municipal Vulnerability Preparedness (MVP) Program. The city was awarded an $814,524 state grant in June for the Churchill Brook and West Street Culvert Replacement Project.
Through the MVP program, which begun in 2017, municipalities identify key climate-related hazards, vulnerabilities and strengths, develop adaptation actions, and prioritize next steps. The initiative which initially started as a $500,000 capital grant program has now increased to $12 million. Pittsfield is among the 71 percent of communities across the commonwealth now enrolled in the MVP program.
"The governor and the lieutenant governor have made resilient infrastructure a priority all across the state and I think it's really important to know that we have a really vested interest in Western Massachusetts communities as well as all across the state, not forgetting the Berkshires or Pioneer Valley," said Theoharides in a statement. "Our MVP program is really focused on these types of partnership investments and looking to design infrastructure for the challenges we're seeing today and moving forward as climate change increases."
Four names will be on the preliminary ballot but only three candidates showed for the debate held by the Pittsfield Gazette and hosted at Berkshire Community College. The moderator was radio host Larry Kratka and Pittsfield Community Television aired the event.
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City Council President Peter Marchetti feels he's brought "professional leadership" to the city and he wants to continue doing so.
Marchetti is again seeking re-election to the council - it'll be his ninth campaign for council and 10th for elected office - in the last two decades. He's had what... click for more