Posted on April 5, 2019

MCAS Question About the Underground Railroad Thrown Out

Ellen Gerst, Boston Magazine, April 4, 2019


Tenth-grade students taking the English Language Arts exam noticed the question and raised their concerns to teachers. It was then pulled from tests that hadn’t been administered yet, and the scoring of completed tests has now been brought into question.

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has since agreed not to score the question on tests that have already been taken. But for some, that isn’t enough.

The Massachusetts Teachers Association wants the DESE to throw out scores for the whole test, saying that students who were traumatized by the question would not have performed at their best for the rest of the exam.


The question cited Colson Whitehead’s novel The Underground Railroad, which won a Pulitzer in 2016. The book follows two slaves fleeing a plantation in Georgia in the 1800s — but the students were asked to write from the point of view of Ethel, a racist white woman who betrays the slaves on their way to freedom.

According to the State House News Service, a press release from the unions and other advocates contained a quote from Whitehead saying, “Whoever came up with the question has done a great disservice to these kids, and everyone who signed off on it should be ashamed.”

The question was approved for the exam last year after it passed field testing on 1,100 students and was okayed by the DESE’s bias committee. It wasn’t until Friday, when students in Boston began to talk about it, that the DESE began to reconsider the question.

“This issue brings into question the matter of who is reviewing and approving the test before it is administered,” Juan Cofield, president of the NAACP New England, told the State House News Service. “The lack of cultural sensitivity and adequate supervision is a serious matter for all communities and certainly for communities of color.”