Controversial MCAS Question Leads to State Response

In an unusual turn of events, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) scrapped a question on this year’s ELA MCAS after an outcry that the question was offensive and insensitive. The students taking the test were sophomores, including those from CRLS.

On the exam, which took place on March 26th and 27th, some students received a passage from Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer prize-winning novel, The Underground Railroad, that chronicles two runaway slaves living in the southeastern US in the 19th century. After reading the passage, students had been asked to write an essay from the perspective of a white woman in the excerpt who used derogatory language toward one of the two slaves and had conflicting feelings about helping her.

Sophomore Samia Afrose, who had the question on her test, thought that the question “wasn’t okay.” She elaborated, saying she wasn’t comfortable with the prompt because “they were asking me to pretend to act like one race and feel a certain emotion toward another race.”

According to The Boston Globe, many students questioned whether they should write derogatory comments in their essays, as that is what the character had done. “I basically wrote as if I was a white person [during the 19th century], and I wrote [discriminatory] comments because I learned that black people were discriminated against and they weren’t treated fairly by the white community,” said Afrose.

“It was a spectrum of emotions about the question in general, so that’s why we wanted to have a conversation.”

— Student English Teacher Molly Roach

Shortly after the test was administered, students, teachers, and other school officials across Massachusetts demanded that the state not score the question, arguing that it was racist and had inflicted unnecessary trauma on students during a high stakes test. The state responded to these complaints by announcing on March 31st  that it would throw out the question, but it wasn’t until a week later that the state released the prompt for the public to read.

However, sophomore Ih’san Ellis said that after hearing from her classmates in a discussion about the question, she observed that none of her classmates had found the question problematic.  

Molly Roach, a student English teacher at CRLS who teaches a class of sophomores, said that her students had a variety of different reactions to the question. She said some “were in test mode” and were focused on performing their best so they didn’t give the prompt much thought, whereas others felt more strongly. “It was definitely a spectrum of emotions about the question in general, so that’s why we wanted to have a conversation, just to acknowledge that there were some differing opinions about it and ask what they thought about DESE’s decision to ultimately remove the question.”

In an email to the district on April 8th, Superintendent Kenneth Salim explained the situation while voicing his disapproval and pointing out the responsibility of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) to investigate “what went wrong.”

Salim went on to outline the history of the implementation of MCAS “to promote transparency around the persistence of inequity within education” and point out the irony in the fact that this question was included on the test.

At the same time, Salim urged that the test itself is not what CRLS community members should question at this time, but rather the specific prompt and the process by which it was written and approved.

“I think that questions about relevant issues in our students’ lives are absolutely important and should be discussed, [but] I don’t think the place for them is a standardized test,” said Ms. Roach. “Any question that could potentially trigger a student or prevent a student from doing their best on a test that is required to graduate, I don’t believe should be included on the MCAS.”


This piece also appears in our April 2019 print edition.