Soon after Ruben Brosbe handed out an assigned test-prep packet to his fifth-grade students in Harlem this month, he became concerned.
As he read over his students’ shoulders, he noticed a passage about Robert E. Lee that appeared to minimize the Confederate leader’s role in preserving slavery.
Lee “claimed that he didn’t like it that slavery existed,” read the passage, which was part of a practice test created for New York schools by Curriculum Associates, a company that makes tests, educational games and classroom materials for schools across the country. The passage went on to say that Lee’s wife “did show genuine concern” for the family’s slaves, teaching them to read and sew.
Brosbe said he found the piece to be “very biased.” But he said he couldn’t discuss it with his students, who are mostly black and Hispanic, because they were taking the practice tests, which Brosbe said the city requires certain low-performing schools to administer twice per year.
“I thought it was very problematic and it didn’t make any sense to me why it would show up on a test when teachers aren’t able to provide any context,” Brosbe told Chalkbeat. He also blogged about the experience, writing that the passage “is a glaringly bad example of the racial bias embedded into tests, curriculum, and the U.S. education system in general.”
A spokeswoman for Curriculum Associates said the passage was flagged during a review last fall and is no longer included in new materials.
“As a company, Curriculum Associates takes cultural responsiveness seriously and is committed to constantly evolving our materials to ensure we serve all students equitably,” said Charlotte Fixler, the company’s director of communications, in an email. “We agree with the fundamental concerns shared by this educator and felt that presenting this content in a non-teacher-led environment was not in the best interest of students.”
She added that the company is working with experts to make sure its materials “don’t marginalize” any students.
New York City education department spokesman Michael Aciman said the passage “lacks important context” and will no longer be included in materials used in city schools.
Brosbe’s concern about the test passage comes amid a new wave of attention to racial bias in classroom materials and instruction in New York City. The incident highlights how even seemingly neutral materials like test-prep booklets can reflect baked-in biases and values.
Reports about several racially charged lessons, including an incident where a teacher is accused of stepping on the backs of students of color to simulate slavery, have given new ammunition to advocates who say the education department needs to provide teacher training and classroom materials that are culturally sensitive and reflect all students.
As Brosbe’s experience shows, even teachers who try to make their classrooms welcoming for all students can be thwarted when they are required to use curriculum materials that they don’t control.
The Southern Poverty Law Center zeroed in on that problem in a recent analysis, finding that popular textbooks rarely detail the “comprehensive history” of slavery, including white supremacy. In a survey, 58 percent of teachers found their textbooks “inadequate” and 40 percent said their state did not offer enough support for how to teach about slavery.
Presented with the passage that Brosbe’s students read, Maureen Costello, the director of Teaching Tolerance — an arm of the law center which provides free resources for educators — said she saw numerous problems.
“It’s overly-simplified and, worse, lacks context,” she wrote in an email. Those issues, she added, could undermine the test’s effectiveness.
“It reflects a white sensibility that assumes this is a good neutral topic on which to base a test question,” she wrote. “When you use a passage as loaded as this one with assumptions about history, it introduces new variables (does it jibe with what a student believes? Does it make the student angry? Does it demean the student?) that may make it harder for the test to actually measure what it’s intended to.”
Curriculum Associates is a Massachusetts-based company that also produces online “personalized learning” programs that are widely used across the country. Its materials are used by 6 million students, according to a company press release. The passage was included in the company’s “Ready” materials that are designed to mirror New York state tests, Brosbe said.
Many New York City elementary and middle schools use the company’s materials, and the state has previously approved its assessments for use in teacher and principal evaluations.
Brosbe blogged about “feeling angry and sick” after reading the questions about Lee, and included a link to the Curriculum Associates website where the passage was posted. The link stopped working after Chalkbeat sent the company a request for comment late Tuesday.
Brosbe’s concerns about the test passage are in line with a growing push in New York to root out bias in the city’s classrooms and teaching materials.
On Wednesday, a group of parent leaders called for “systemic changes to begin addressing racism in our schools and the school system.” The Education Council Consortium, which represents all the local parent education councils in the city, pointed to a number of other problematic incidents — including a PTA fundraiser ad that featured performers in blackface — but did not specifically address the test passage.
“Underneath these overtly racist incidents,” the group said in a statement, “are microaggressions and implicit biases that plague many students of color on a daily basis, taking a toll on their socio-emotional well being.”
Here’s more from the test passage:
Lee didn’t support secession. He believed that states did not have the right to leave the Union, and he worried that war would come if they did. Lee also did not like the idea that a war would be fought over slavery. He claimed that he didn’t like it that slavery existed in the United States, and he once wrote that “slavery as an institution is a moral and political evil.” At the same time, he was very much against an immediate end to it. He favored what he later called a “gradual emancipation,” one that would take place over time. Lee and his family owned slaves, and by all accounts, he treated these people as property. Legally, he could have freed them, but he didn’t. His wife, Mary, however, did show genuine concern for the slaves at Arlington, the estate where they lived. She taught the female slaves there to read, write, and sew, so that they would be better prepared for freedom when the time came.
Monica Disare contributed reporting.