Melrose is set to join other school districts and advocacy groups in asking state officials to void this year’s 10th grade English MCAS exam, after students, parents, and teachers objected to a writing prompt that asked students to assume the perspective of an openly racist character.

School Committee member Lizbeth DeSelm presented a draft resolution at the committee’s most recent meeting, along with a letter to members of the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education asking them to remove the graduation requirement from this year’s MCAS exam.

"This exam was flawed," the letter read in part, "containing a writing prompt from Colson Whitehead’s ‘The Underground Railroad’ where students were asked to write from the point of view of an openly racist character who actively forsakes slaves attempting to flee to freedom. This question, which required students to adopt a racist point-of-view in answering the prompt, only provides seeds for furthering racial divides, fostering marginalization and bigotry and has no place in today’s educational landscape. Further, we request the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education adopt a policy of releasing old MCAS exam questions to districts across the Commonwealth to ensure no such egregious errors happen again."

The test drew criticism earlier this year after several Boston students complained about the question. Education Commissioner Jeff Riley removed the question from exams that had yet to be administered, and announced it would not be factored into the scores of students who had already taken the MCAS, but local teachers’ unions, advocacy groups, and the New England chapter of the NAACP called on the state to hold harmless all students who had taken the text with the question included, arguing that its presence was potentially distracting or even traumatic.

DeSelm said her measure was in keeping with Melrose’s values.

"The overarching purpose here is to reaffirm to the community that all are welcome, that racism and bigotry have no place in our schools, in our classrooms, or on our exams," she said. "While there are certainly greater topics for discussions here, namely the invalidity or validity, however you view it, of high-stakes testing, this resolution is aimed at pushing the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, to hold them accountable, such that they should not punish students who took the role of whistleblower, and that if we must operate under a high-stakes model, they release their exam questions to districts at the conclusion of the testing year to ensure egregious errors like this do not happen again."

Other members of the committee, and Superintendent Cyndy Taymore, were supportive of the measure, only suggesting ways to tweak its language or add to its arguments. They agreed that this was not the first time the MCAS had unfairly disadvantaged some students.

"It’s a test that’s never been culturally responsive," said Taymore. "My favorite story is about the fourth-grade math test, in which they asked kids to find the diameter of a patio. There were kids who didn’t know what a patio was."

"It’s a test based more on selling textbooks than anything, than really trying to see what kids are doing or what they’re learning, and I think that can be emphasized just by this one question that we’re talking about," said committee member John Obremski. "But I can reference questions that go back years. We had a question many years ago revolving around a snow day. It was an essay question, and that’s when they released all the questions. But in the district where I worked we hadn’t had a snow day in two years, and we had kids from all over the world, they had no idea what a snow day was."

Committee member Jen McAndrew said the controversy demonstrates the need for greater transparency. She added that the letter to DESE could be an opportunity to air other grievances against the standardized-testing system overall.

"This is obviously a blatant example, and we know about it only because of students and their educators who advocated, who stepped forward and talked about it, when they’re instructed not to actually," she said. "There are other issues around high-stakes testing and disparities among students that I think are probably worth setting in the context of a letter."

Obremski suggested asking for the entire 10th grade MCAS to be removed as a requirement for the year.

"A kid taking that test, seeing that question, what did that do to that kid on that day?" he said. "I would like to see it cover the entire MCAS. The ELA test is given first, it completely disrupted the testing environment for all students across the state. It was very obvious that the question was inappropriate."

The committee will consider the resolution further at a future meeting.