Don’t Trash Entire Test for One Debatable Flaw
Teachers’ unions and some advocacy groups want state education officials to scrap an entire Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) exam because it contained one question requiring students to write a passage paraphrasing an openly racist character in a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel.
After some students in Boston raised concerns about that section on the 10th-grade English Language Arts exam, the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) notified schools the question would not be scored or included on exams yet to be administered.
That wasn’t enough. Massachusetts Teachers Association President Merrie Najimy claimed a number of students’ performances on the test were upset by the question, which hurt their test scores.
Najimy told the State House News Service “the problem is the test itself,” apparently concluding that a single question deemed objectionable by some students and overwhelmingly by teachers’ unions can invalidate the entire exam.
The Boston Teachers Union, the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Education Justice Alliance and the New England Area Conference of the NAACP also have urged the state to pull the exam.
The question is about Colson Whitehead’s critically acclaimed 2016 novel “The Underground Railroad,” winner of the Pulitzer, and prestigious prizes such as the 2016 National Book Award for Fiction, the Arthur C. Clarke Award, and the Andrew Carnegie Medal For Excellence. It undoubtedly earned the highest awards in fiction writing because of its thought-provoking content.
The novel chronicles two slaves fleeing an alternate-history Georgia plantation in the 19th century. According to the protesting groups, the exam asked students to “write a journal entry from the perspective of the character Ethel, who is openly racist and betrays slaves trying to escape.”
As Najimy certainly knows, getting inside someone else’s skin -- as the fictional character Atticus Finch explains to his daughter Scout in the novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” -- allows for greater understanding.
In the MCAS question’s case, writing through the lens of a bigot is by no means an endorsement of that person’s reprehensible beliefs.
This question passed preliminary field tests with more than 1,100 students. Yet in this instance, DESE might have overestimated the capacity of some students to separate the visceral effects of racism from an academic exercise.
But it’s no reason to condemn the entire test.
And it’s certainly convenient that the MTA, which seems averse to having its members judged by students’ performance, somehow extrapolated the inclusion of this one question as further evidence to reinforce its argument that state officials should suspend “high-stakes testing” for the foreseeable future.
This incident, as DESE agrees, will lead to greater engagement among stakeholders on the MCAS’ content.
But it should not be used as a cynical excuse to deep-six a critical statewide student measuring stick.