Five days after the state’s elementary and secondary education commissioner said he would scrap a controversial MCAS exam question, a former sensitivity review committee member says she raised concerns about the question about two years ago.

The question, according to teachers, was about Colson Whitehead’s 2016 book "The Underground Railroad." It asked students to write from the point of view of an openly racist character.

“I found it objectionable,” said Elaine Weintraub, an education consultant who was part of the bias and sensitivity review committee that vetted the question in 2017. “I think there’s just no question. It’s not a healthy situation.”

Weintraub said she raised concerns about the question at the time, but can’t remember how other members reacted, since the meeting was over a conference call and rushed, she said. She worried the question would trouble students of color and legitimize racist thinking for other students.

It’s rare for the state to pull an MCAS question after the test has been given. In 2003, the state famously asked fourth graders to write about their last snow day, when many students hadn’t had one in two years. Weintraub says this incident should force the state to look at how it uses the bias and sensitivity committee to review test questions.

Department of Elementary and Secondary Education commissioner Jeff Riley declined a request for an interview through his spokeswoman.

“He and the Department are taking the time to do a deep review of all the information surrounding the test question. We’ll have comments after that process is done,” media relations coordinator Jackie Reis wrote in an email.

The committee was formed in 1998, at the same time the MCAS testing program began. The members help state education staff judge test questions and language art passages before they are tested with a small group of students in the field, and then again after those field tests. Members identify questions with potential bias or insensitivity and recommend actions to the staff. It’s up to the staff to decide whether to keep, change or drop questions they’re concerned about.

Weintraub is concerned that the committee, of which she was a member until the end of 2018, only met in person part of the time, and was rushed to review hundreds of questions.

“I think maybe it should be more thoughtful,” Weintraub said. “I think this question would not have come up if there had been more time, because the kind of people I worked with on the committee would have said, ‘Wait a minute.’”

The committee that reviewed the question based on Whitehead’s novel had 15 members, including four African-Americans, three Asian-Americans, two Hispanics, and one Indian-American, according to the state.

Our coverage of K through 12 education is made possible with support from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.