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Massachusetts Pulls Controversial MCAS Question On Race, Slavery

BOSTON (CBS/AP) — The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has decided on the unusual step of not scoring 10th-grade students on a statewide exam question that some considered racially insensitive.

The essay question on the MCAS English exam was based on a passage from the Pulitzer-Prize winning novel "The Underground Railroad."

Students were asked to write an essay from the perspective of a white woman who's conflicted about helping an escaped slave, and uses derogatory language toward her.

Students complained they were left in the uncomfortable position of either using racist language or sacrificing historical accuracy. Also objecting was the Massachusetts Teachers Association, which said answering the question could be especially traumatic for African-American students.

State Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley said the question was intended to challenge students, but he fully understands the concerns.

"The Department has a thorough process for vetting test questions that includes review by educators, review by a committee that looks at possible biases, and field tests of all questions before they are used toward students' scores," Riley said in a statement.

"However, out of an abundance of caution and in the interest of student fairness, we have decided not to use the results from this particular question as part of students' scores. Students who have already answered the question will not have it scored, and students who take the makeup test this week will be instructed not to answer that question."

The test question was reviewed and approved in 2017. It was later tried out on a field test in the spring of 2018 in 255 high schools. More than 1,000 students took the test and no problems were reported, officials said. After the field test, a bias committee reviewed it and approved the question as a test item for 2019.

"The issue of what is appropriate content for future tests warrants further discussion among students, parents, teachers, administrators, and the public at large," Riley said.

Colson Whitehead, the author of "The Underground Railroad,"said he was "appalled and disgusted" by the MCAS essay question.

"What kind of idiot would have students imagine the rationalizations of a racist coward who shrinks from moral responsibility? 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," he said in a statement to WBZ-TV Thursday.

"Inhabiting characters like Ethel caused me great emotional distress. 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."

(© Copyright 2019 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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