The Boston Globe - 31.08.2019

(Joyce) #1

AUGUST 31, 2019


By James Vaznis
A Stanford University study has
concluded that a controversial tenth-
grade MCAS essay question that many
students and teachers derided as racist
hurt the performance of a small num-
ber of black students, state officials an-
nounced Friday, prompting them to
take the unusual step of waiving the
passing score for a limited number of
The essay question from this
spring’s MCAS was based on a passage
from Colson Whitehead’s book, “The
Underground Railroad,’’ and asked
students to write a journal entry from
the perspective of a white woman who
used derogatory language against a
young runaway slave and was reluc-
tant to hide her in her home. Students
encountered the question on the sec-
ond day of testing, although it did not
appear on all the tests.
Tenth-graders must pass the MCAS
in order to receive their high school di-
“The study, led by Stanford re-
searchers, showed that while black
students experienced a small differ-

white students on the second day of
the English Language Arts MCAS test,
that small difference was within the
normal variation of such differences
on past MCAS tests,” Jeffrey Riley, the
state’s education commissioner, wrote
in a letter to school superintendents
late Friday afternoon.
However, Riley added that the over-
arching finding was not applicable to
all black students who encountered
the question, noting a small number of
them were probably adversely impact-
ed. Consequently, “out of an abun-
dance of caution,” he said, the depart-
ment has decided to loosen some
MCAS rules.
For instance, the department will
waive the passing score for students
who were on track to pass the English
MCAS, but then saw their perfor-
mance falter after confronting “The
Underground Railroad’’ question.
The study comes three months af-
ter an uproar emerged over the ques-
tion, prompting Riley to drop the ques-
tion from the test and not count the re-
sponses from the students who
answered it. Riley then tapped the

Stanford researchers after some edu-
cators raised concerns that students
may have been so upset by the ques-
tion that it could have negatively af-
fected their performance on the re-
mainder of the test.
The prospect of having to write
from the perspective of a white racist
woman offended some students who
experienced discrimination, while oth-
ers grappled with whether using racist
language would be considered histori-
cally accurate or inappropriate.
Boston teachers and administra-
tors, acting on concerns expressed by
their students, were among those lead-
ing the charge. On Friday, Boston Su-
perintendent Brenda Cassellius com-
mended students who brought the is-
sue forward and expressed
appreciation that the state took them
“Commissioner Riley listened to the
valid concerns of our students and is
taking appropriate corrective action by
not penalizing test-takers and giving
them opportunities to qualify for a
state scholarship,” Cassellius said in a
statement. “This unfortunate situation
reflects the serious consequences of

high-stakes standardized tests, which
can impact a student’s ability to gradu-
ate or obtain crucial financial assis-
tance for college.”
Cassellius, who started as Boston’s
superintendent in July, has long been a
critic of testing. As Minnesota’s com-
missioner she ended that state’s test-
ing requirement for graduation.
In conducting their analysis, the
Stanford researchers examined how
students who encountered the ques-
tion performed on the latter part of the
previous years performed on the latter
part of their tests.
Although the researchers found
small differences between the perfor-
mance of black and white students
who encountered the “Underground
Railroad’’ passage, they concluded it
was “similar to effects, both positive
and negative, observed in other MCAS
settings,” Riley said.
“Indeed, preliminary MCAS results
show that the same percentage of stu-
dents met the testing requirement for
graduation this year as did last year,”
Riley said. “That is true both for stu-
dents overall and for black students.”

MCAS results are expected to be re-
leased publicly next month.
Other steps Riley is taking so that
no students — regardless of their race
or ethnicity — are unnecessarily penal-
ized by the discarded MCAS question,
include allowing students to retake the
exam if they did not score high enough
to earn a John and Abigail Adams
Scholarship, which provides free tu-
ition at state colleges and universities
for up to eight semesters.
Also, students who failed the Eng-
lish portion of the MCAS will be able to
seek an appeal from the testing re-
quirement if they are unable to pass it
twice instead of three times. A success-
ful appeal, as established by the 1993
Education Reform Act, which created
the testing requirement, enables stu-
dents to demonstrate through their
coursework that they have the knowl-
edge and skills to satisfy the passing
“We are taking the actions outlined
here because we believe they are in the
best interest of students,” Riley said.

James Vaznis can be reached at

MCAS question affected black students’ tests

By Brian MacQuarrie
Joshua Curtiss of South Boston
zigzagged across a patch of dirt this
summer as he tried to capture a goat,
a circus-like chase that the 19-year-
old found both amusing and fright-
ening during an eye-opening trip to
remote areas of Kenya and Tanzania.
“I didn’t know if it’d attack me or
what,” Curtiss recalled with a smile.
Corraling an animal that doesn’t
want to be caught won’t be on the
curriculum at the Massachusetts
College of Liberal Arts, where Curtiss
will be a freshman this fall. But the
leadership program that brought
him to East Africa — goat chasing in-
cluded — has given him new confi-
dence that he can make the transi-
tion to college from Urban Science
Academy in West Roxbury.
College success for Boston stu-
dents is at the core of Next Genera-
tion Leaders, a program created in
2007 by travel entrepreneur Harriet
Lewis that sent Curtiss and nine oth-
ers on the brink of college to Africa
for two weeks.
Their journey capped a summer-
long internship at Grand Circle
Corp., a global travel company
owned by Lewis and her husband,
Alan, that is based in the Seaport.
The students are placed in challeng-
ing jobs that emphasize team build-
ing, risk taking, and communica-
tion, Lewis said.
“It’s tough with a lot of love,” said
Lewis, the chairwoman of the Lewis
Family Foundation, which funds the
program. “I see a lot of potential that
they don’t see in themselves yet.”
That potential is yielding results.
Ninety-three percent of the 88 stu-
dents who have completed the Next
Generation program — mostly from
Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan
— have graduated from four-year
colleges and universities or are on
track to complete their studies, Lew-
is said.
Citywide, Boston Public Schools
reported that 54 percent of its Class
of 2017 intended to attend four-year
colleges. A 2018 report found that 38
percent of the 2011 graduating class
received a college degree within six
years, 14 percentage points higher
than the Class of 2000.
Katherine Bernardez, an 18-year-
old from Dorchester who will attend
the University of Massachusetts Am-
herst, said that once-distant hori-
zons are now within her reach.
“I had been very indecisive,” said
Bernardez, whose parents immigrat-
ed to the United States as young
adults from Honduras. “Now, I am
able to trust my gut. All the self-
doubting I had before is basically out
the window.”
Bernardez, who graduated from
City on a Hill Charter School in Rox-
bury, worked in marketing for ad-
venture travel at Grand Circle before
the group trip to East Africa.
“My mom wants me to go

through with my dreams. I don’t
want to let her down,” Bernardez
said. “It’s not just where you come
from. No matter where you come
from, there’s talent.”
The program seeks talent through
a competitive application process
that includes essays and interviews,

said Juma Crawford, president of the
Lewis Family Foundation.
“We’re looking for young people
who can be stretched and pushed
and probably hadn’t been,” Crawford
said. “We’re really looking for young
people who have a hunger to be lead-

Leadership skills are honed with
a hefty dose of problem-solving and
accountability, he said. The students
rotate as team leaders in Africa, for
example, and are placed in compli-
cated situations where they must
find solutions while the adults who
accompany them remain in the
“We will drop them in the middle
of a market and say, ‘We need these
eight things.’ They have to figure it
out. If we don’t get these things, we
won’t be able to feed 400 children at
a school,” Crawford said. “Get com-
fortable being uncomfortable.”
At their summer jobs, the stu-
dents are given regular performance
reviews. The work fills actual corpo-
rate needs, Lewis said, and interns
can be fired if they do not meet their
goals or follow guidelines.
“It’s not stuffing envelopes here,”
said Lewis, a former special educa-
tion teacher in the Boston school sys-
tem. “We don’t sugarcoat anything.
We do not baby.”
The summer’s lessons are de-
signed to stay with the students long
after they have moved on to college.
“When push comes to shove, one
of the biggest challenges, particular-
ly with students of color, is to self-ad-
vocate, ask for help, and speak up
when they need support,” Crawford
said. “You have a voice. You have to
use that voice.”
Nathalie Diaz-Troncoso, an 18-

year-old from Roxbury who will at-
tend Connecticut College this fall,
said she has learned to speak up.
“I’m a girl from the projects. By
coming here, I’ve learned I’m talent-
ed,” said Diaz-Troncoso, who gradu-
ated from Boston Latin Academy
and wants to become an immigra-
tion lawyer.
“Nothing has ever pushed me this
hard,” added Diaz-Troncoso, the
daughter of Dominican immigrants.
“It’s made me a more open person.
I’ve really left myself open and let
people in.”
Some Next Generation students
had never been away from home be-
fore the program, certainly nowhere
as exotic as Africa. But their day-to-
day life in Boston can often be more
impactful than the far-flung travels
of more privileged freshmen, Lewis
“You have different experiences,
and they’re very valuable,” she tells
the students.
Many times, bringing that value
to light takes a blunt mix of uncod-
dled pushing and knowing persua-
“There is nothing light and fluffy
about this program, but it is a lot of
fun,” Lewis said. “I still call myself a
teacher. We want them to learn how
to lead.”

Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at


HARRIET LEWIS,chairwoman of the Lewis Family Foundation, which funds the Next Generation Leaders program

Building their confidence before college




From left: Nathalie Diaz-Troncosco, Joshua Curtiss, and Katherine Bernardez in the office of Grand Circle Corp. in Boston.

Harriet Lewis, a former special education teacher in the Boston
school system, said the work students do is not “stuffing envelopes.”
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