Our Opinion: Poor MCAS question had a solid premise

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On Wednesday, the Pittsfield School Committee will discuss an MCAS essay question that ignited an uproar in Massachusetts public schools and sent state educational officials scrambling for a remedy. The question was undeniably poorly written, but the reasoning behind the question was defensible.

Tenth graders taking the MCAS spring exam were asked to write a journal entry from the perspective of a white woman who uses derogatory language toward a runaway slave but is conflicted about whether or not she should help her. The question is based on the The Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel "The Underground Rairoad." A network of secret routes and safe houses enabling slaves to flee the southern states, the Underground Railroad passed through part of Berkshire County.

Students and educators around the state protested the inclusion of the question and the state Department of Elementary Education responded by informing superintendents that students would not be scored on the question and that students taking the makeup exam shouldn't answer it. While the School Committee may discuss the issue tomorrow night the state has made it unnecessary for the board to take any action.

The question, which passed the usual multi-stage process to be included on the exam, should never have asked students to use words they have been taught not to use at the risk of suspension from school. However, if students were simply asked to write something from the perspective of a racist who is conflicted when actually confronted with the implications of that racism the question would have had value.

Asking students to share the perspective of someone different from themselves would constitute a powerful thought exercise. We sympathize with students uncomfortable with being confronted with this particular question — according to The Boston Globe, some students thought they would be penalized for using racist words while others thought they would lose exam points because of historical inaccuracy if they didn't use them. However, it isn't a bad idea to get students out of their comfort zones It's for this reason that the banning of controversial speakers, usually from the far right, on college campuses because of student protests is an affront to both free speech and the educational process.

The occasional poorly written question aside, the real problem with the MCAS exam is that a standardized test that was designed to in theory provide guidance as to which schools and classrooms were falling short educationally so they could be provided and assistance has become an educational end-all and be-all which forces teachers to teach to the test and students to grapple with high-pressure exams that should come later in their academic careers. The fundamental premise of MCAS is what should be questioned, but as long as the exam is with us, essay questions should be formulated that challenge students without forcing them to use language they have been taught by their parents, teachers and society in general that they should never use.

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