(CNN) — Some high school students in Massachusetts were shocked last month when they took their statewide assessment exam. They were asked to read an excerpt from Colson Whitehead’s 2016 novel “The Underground Railroad” and write a journal entry from the perspective of a character named Ethel.
There was just one problem: Ethel is an openly racist white woman in the story about an escaped slave seeking freedom.
The question was part of the English Language Arts Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) exam, which was given to all sophomores in public schools beginning March 26. Students must pass the MCAS to graduate.
Max Page, vice president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, said students reported being deeply disturbed by the prompt.
“They really felt like they were being asked to basically write creative racist thoughts and put them into words for this character,” Page said. “This seemed like a disturbing thing to ask students — especially students of color — to do.”
Whitehead, who won the Pulitzer Prize for the novel, said he was “appalled and disgusted” by the assignment.
Test administrators have pulled the question
Page added that some students and teachers were reluctant to speak out because students are barred from discussing the exam.
After school administrators informed the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) that students had raised concerns, DESE pulled the question on Sunday.
Students who already took the test will not have the question scored, and others will be told to skip it, DESE Commissioner Jeffrey Riley said in a letter to superintendents.
All passages and test questions go through a “thorough vetting process,” DESE said. The question was approved by a bias and sensitivity committee and tried out on 1,100 students in a spring 2018 test.
The book’s author says he is ‘appalled and disgusted’
Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad” tells the story of Cora, who escapes from a Georgia plantation and heads on a perilous journey toward freedom. The novel adds elements of fantasy by creating a literal version of the Underground Railroad, a system of safe houses and routes used to smuggle slaves to freedom in the early- to mid-1800s.
“The Underground Railroad” won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and a 2016 National Book Award.
Whitehead condemned the test prompt in a statement.
“I am appalled and disgusted,” the author said. “What kind of idiot would have students imagine the rationalizations of a racist coward who shrinks from moral responsibility? There are plenty of heroes in the book — black and white — who stand up and do the right thing in the face of terrible consequences; certainly they are more worthy of investigation.”
He added that writing characters like Ethel took a toll on him emotionally.
“I can only imagine how painful it was for the students to find this insensitive assignment on their high stakes test. I salute their courage,” Whitehead said. “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-CNN-Wire™ & © 2019 Cable News Network, Inc., a Time Warner Company. All rights reserved.)