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Massachusetts Removes Essay Question from Standardized Test Asking Students to Respond from Racist Character’s Point of View

A controversial essay question in a state-issued standardized test has been removed following concern pouring out from Boston students.

The Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System exam included a question in the English portion based on an excerpt from the 2016 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Underground Railroad” by Colson Whitehead. While the novel focuses on a Georgian enslaved woman named Cora’s escape from a plantation, the question asked students to respond to the prompt from the perspective of the character Ethel. The character is a racist white woman who lives in North Carolina before the Civil War.

Colson Whitehead

U.S. novelist and Pulitzer Prize winner Colson Whitehead waits to meet German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier at Schloss Bellevue presidential palace on October 23, 2017 in Berlin, Germany. Whitehead said he was “appalled and disgusted” that the MCAS exam included a question based on a racist character in his novel “The Underground Railroad.” (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

“When I seen that question, it brought frustration to me and more pressure onto the test just thinking about how could you bring that to students,” an anonymous sophomore old WCVB Channel 5 Boston on April 4.

The question that was answered by some local 10th-graders on the MCAS last week. They will not be scored on it, the news station reported Thursday.

“When we debriefed it in class the next day, a lot of them just said, ‘I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know how to say bad things about a black girl like me,'” said Boston English teacher Jessie Lortie told the outlet.

Student concerns have led to the removal of the question for 10th grades statewide who will take makeup exams. However, the local NAACP chapter and the state teacher’s union are among the groups that say the entire test should be tossed.

“This test traumatized them and then they were expected to move on with the rest of the test and the rest of the day as if nothing else happened,” said Merrie Najimy, the president of Massachusetts Teachers Association to the Boston ABC affiliate.

As for how the question managed to make it onto the test, it went through the usual vetting process with other exam questions and was approved by a committee of teachers, according to state education officials. It was then tested on 1,100 students who reported no issues.

“And that’s where we should have caught it — where it should have been caught, I should say,” says Boston Mayor Marty Walsh. “We’re going to move forward here and we’re going to work with the state to make sure that any time they give us a test to do again, something like this doesn’t happen.”

In a statement, the novel’s author said he was “appalled and disgusted” by the prompt appearing on the MCAS.

“What kind of idiot would have students imagine the rationalizations of a racist coward who shrinks from moral responsibility?” Whitehead said. “There are plenty of heroes in the book — black and white — who stand up and do the right thing in the face of terrible consequences; certainly they are more worthy of investigation.

“Inhabiting characters like Ethel caused me great emotional distress,” his statement continued. “I can only imagine how painful it was for the students to find this insensitive assignment on their high stakes test. I salute their courage. Whoever came up with the question has done a great disservice to these kids, and everyone who signed off on it should be ashamed.”

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