In Massachusetts, the spring of 2019 marks the first time that grade 10 students have taken the new MCAS 2.0 exams at the high school level (in English Language Arts, mathematics, and science).
Receiving a passing score on these three exams is a part of the Massachusetts high school graduation requirement. The grade 10 ELA exam, given in late March, resulted in controversy based on a narrative writing prompt assigned to students. Specifically, students were asked to assume the perspective of an openly racist character and write a journal prompt from her point-of-view.
The reading passage this prompt was based upon was taken from Colson Whitehead’s 2016 novel The Underground Railroad. The author responded that he was “appalled and disgusted” by this choice. Merrie Najimy, President of the Massachusetts Teacher’s Association (MTA) commented,
“For all of the unconscionable aspects of standardized testing, [the state] has imposed a new layer of trauma — particularly on students of color — forcing students to read a tiny excerpt of the book, produce a quick answer about race relations embodying a racist perspective, and then stifle the complicated emotions that emerge.”
Further, in testimony given before The Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, the MTA called for the board to lift the MCAS “gag rule” which prevents teachers from viewing the exam and students from discussing the content of the exam. In order to report the concerns to the department, students, teachers, and administrators from Boston Public Schools had to violate this “gag rule” and risk repercussions.
In response to the concerns communicated by Boston Public Schools, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (MA DESE) removed the responses from students’ overall score. The process for reviewing the exams for bias and sensitivity issues includes a committee of educators who review the content and make recommendations to DESE.
Elaine Weintraub, an education consultant and member of the committee who reviewed the content of this particular exam described the limitation of time to review “hundreds of questions.”
Weintraub stated, “I think it should be more thoughtful. I think this question would not have come up if there had been more time, because the kind of people I worked with on the committee would have said, ‘Wait a minute.’”
In response to larger criticism around the current accountability system relying heavily on standardized testing several organizations in Massachusetts are partnering with schools to reimagine alternate pathways to measure student growth. One example is the MA Consortium for Innovative Education Assessment (MCIEA). MCIEA works with districts to create “Teacher-generated, curriculum-embedded performance assessments.” MCIEA has partnered with districts including: Boston, Lowell, Winchester, Attleboro, Revere and Somerville.