The following essay was submitted as for the English composition section of the 2000 Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) Test. The MCAS Test is given every year to students in the 4th, 8th, and 10th grades as a measure of general learning and a basis for accountability of public schools.

Question: Often in works of literature, there are characters—other than the main character—whose presence in the work is essential.

From a work of literature you have read in or out of school, select a character, other than the main character, who plays a key role. In a well-developed composition, identify the character and explain why this character is important.

The secondary character is very important to the work of litterature. Whether it is a book or poem you need more than one character for it to be interesting. In the book, Julius Caesar by Shakespeare Brutus is a secondary character that basically decided what would happen to Caesar, the main character.

Caesar became emperor of Rome for life and a lot of the senators did not like this. Brutus was at first happy about and didn't mind it at all because he was favored by Caesar. Other senators like Cassi s who were greedy for power and did not want Caesar in power decided to plot against him.

Brutus was persuaded by Cassius to join and lead the conspiracy against Caesar, the night before Caesar was killed. If Brutus has not joined the conspiracy against Caesar, Caesar would not have been killed and the conspirators knew that. That is why Brutus is essential to the conspiracy and why the secondary character is important to any book.

Consider the following about this composition:
  • It was turned in by a 10th grade student
  • Students are given a minimum of 90 minutes for the composition, and may ask for more time in need
  • It was given a passing grade
  • Students, parents, and teachers alike argue that this test is too hard
It must pain the grader considerably to be forced to stamp this kind of essay with a passing grade. Not only does the essayist display a fundamental misunderstanding of the play, but also refers to it as "a book", and makes a giant leap in the final paragraph by stating that the secondary character is important in any book because Brutus was essential to the conspiracy. The essayist also seems to have toiled away on his or her work, as they have managed to write a total of nine sentences - three per paragraph - in the time span allotted.

I would be willing to wager that if asked who Calpurnia was, the essayist would come up blank. That doesn't really concern me though. What concerns me is that the MCAS is designed (partially) to uncover learning deficiencies. And what you have here is either a very lazy tenth grader, or one who hasn't been taught how to write a cohesive essay or understand and explain a written body of work. The MCAS should fail this student, force him or her (and his teachers) to work harder on reading and writing, and pass the test the next time around. What it does right now is tell the kid, "Hey, you're doing OK! Graduation is just around the corner!"