AEFP 45th Annual Conference Program
Chair:, RAND Corporation
Chair:, Bellwether Education Partners
Chair:, University of North Carolina- Chapel Hill
Chair:, Vanderbilt University
Chair:, American University
Chair:, United Federation of Teachers
Chair:, Public Policy Institute of California
Chair:, University of Missouri
Chair:, University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill
Chair:, Georgia State University
Chair:, Harvard University
In March 2019, tenth graders in Massachusetts’ public schools sat for the annual English language arts (ELA) exam that is part of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS). By state law, students must pass this examination in order to graduate from high school. On the second day of the exam, students began by reading a passage from the Pulitzer Prize-winning Colson Whitehead novel, The Underground Railroad. They responded to eight multiple-choice items, then were asked to write a journal entry from the perspective of a White female character—one who was described in press accounts as “openly racist.”
Students in one district complained about the essay item to their teachers, and their objections were quickly escalated to the state agency by district administrators. The state immediately voided the test item, the first step in a series of immediate and longer-term policy responses to address any potential negative impact of exposure to this item. One of these was enlisting a team of external, independent researchers to determine whether student performance was harmed on the items that followed the voided essay prompt.
In this policy talk, we will discuss the context for this incident: the test development process that led to this item appearing on the test, the high school graduation policy requirements that made addressing the problematic item particularly thorny, and the tradeoffs the agency was facing as it decided what to do. We will share the findings from the independent research project and provide perspective on how they fit into the broader research literature on stereotype threat. And we will discuss the agency’s response and take-aways for other policymakers and researchers.