MCAS question troubles Pittsfield School Committee

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PITTSFIELD — School Committee members said they plan to write to the state about a problematic question on the MCAS exam 10th-graders took earlier this spring.

Empathizing with fringe views has its place, committee members say, but that place is not this high-stakes required test.

The test asked students to answer an essay question from the perspective of a character who uses racist language in a Colson Whitehead novel, "The Underground Railroad." Local educators feel the question was troubling and could have skewed test results, despite assurances from the state that the question won't count against students.

The state's education commissioner, Jeffrey Riley, decided not to count the question toward students' scores after concerns arose in April. Still, members of the city's School Committee are calling on state leaders to consider flaws in a system that allowed this question into the test in the first place, as well as the potential impacts on the exam beyond the question itself.

The essay question offered a passage from the novel in which a runaway slave, Cora, hid in the upstairs of a home. A woman, Ethel, helped her hide, but did so while deriding her.

"Create a journal entry written by Ethel reflecting on the events that happened in the passage," the question reads. "Your journal entry should provide insight into Ethel's thoughts and feelings, as well as her relationship with Cora."

School Committee Chairwoman Kathy Yon, a retired English teacher, said during a meeting last week she was caught off guard by the question.

"I was surprised they chose the character they did to ask the students to empathize with," she said. "Someone wasn't thinking somewhere along the line."

Superintendent Jason McCandless agreed. "It is problematic from start to finish," he said of the question.

McCandless said the question could have disturbed students emotionally and singled-out black students.

And while it's generally good to try to empathize with people who think differently than you, he said, it's inappropriate to push that upon children taking a high-stakes test. The MCAS test puts a lot of pressure on kids as it is, he said.

"This is an incredibly stressful event," he said. "Anything that adds to that stress is inappropriate."

For its part, the state is taking stock of the issue regarding the test.

"We will review all of the information related to the results of this year's 10th-grade MCAS assessment," said Jacqueline Reis, a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. "And we are also working with external researchers from Stanford University, who will run an independent analysis."

The Stanford researchers will investigate what effect the question might have had on test-takers. The state takes testing conditions seriously because of the influence such circumstances can have on students taking a test, McCandless said. Fire drills and cellphone disruptions must be documented and reported.

McCandless said the district remains concerned that some students applied too much time and energy to a flawed question.

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He and School Committee members said it remains unclear if the state will do more to remedy the situation. Even if it did, they said, there aren't many good options.

McCandless noted a change in how the test is used this year could have an effect on the John and Abigail Adams scholarships, which are awarded each year to the top score-earners in each school.

If the state decided to drop the English portion of the MCAS altogether, it might tilt the scholarships away from students stronger in English than in other subjects. To his knowledge, he said, the state isn't proposing that.

It would also be stressful on students and families to make pupils retake the test because of the offending question, McCandless said.

School Committee member Joshua Cutler said the question brings "unfathomable ramifications."

"This shows that the state needs to take a look at themselves," he said.

Mayor Linda Tyer, who sits on the committee, said she's uncomfortable recommending any particular remedy but thinks there's value in sending a letter to the state expressing the committee's concerns, getting them on the record.

It's important, she said, to acknowledge the state's vetting was "extremely flawed." For any students upset by it, she wants them to know the city reacted and didn't let the moment pass by.

"At the very least we owe them a response," she said of the students.

Especially since cultural competency and inclusivity is "a big part of who we are," Cutler said.

Still, School Committee members commended Riley, the education commissioner, and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education for acting swiftly. McCandless said the quick decision to strike the question demonstrated "aggressive positive leadership."

"That is impressive for a bureaucracy like DESE," he said.

All told, Yon said, the issue poses "a great teachable moment."

Sadly, McCandless said, the lesson comes at the expense of children.

"But it is a fascinating civics lesson to all of us," he said.

Amanda Drane can be contacted at adrane@berkshireeagle.com, @amandadrane on Twitter, and 413-496-6296.


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