The “Girl” in Pennridge High School Assignment Uproar Is Maya Angelou

The question, which turns out to be about the author of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, is a pretty odd one — but it’s not as random as it seems.

The Pennridge School District has apologized after a hybrid math/English question about Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings caused an uproar on the internet.

The fill-in-the-blank question, part of a homework assignment, read: “Angelou was sexually abused by her mother’s ___ at age 8, which shaped her career choices and motivation for writing.” (The correct response is “boyfriend.”)

But the question wasn’t from a literature class; it was actually a math problem. To find the correct answer, students were supposed to solve for x and y in two equations.

“We have received a number of complaints from parents and members of the community regarding a recent high school math homework assignment which contained adult content without a proper context,” Pennridge School District superintendent Jacqueline Rattigan said in a prepared statement. “The homework worksheet in question was downloaded from a website that allows teachers around the world to share educational resources. It is not part of our approved curriculum.”

The problem does look weird. But these sorts of cross-curricular test questions are becoming more and more common in the era of high-stakes federal testing. Teachers (often who do not have training in teaching these areas) are frequently asked to incorporate English or math into their curriculums. Testing determines some of a school’s funding, so these tests are incredibly important — and the subjects students are tested on are creeping into other subjects.

The Pennridge School District, which is in Perkasie, Bucks County, didn’t immediately return a call for comment. But it appears students had recently read Angelou’s classic I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Asking students to answer math problems derived from the frequently depressing memoir is definitely quite odd, but it’s obvious to see how this happened. It’s not a random question about sexual assault. It’s a question about a classic of literature, one with graphic content but also an important book that is appropriate for high schoolers. (I myself read it in Mrs. Garforth’s freshman English class at a high school in Bucks County.)

If the students hadn’t read the Angelou memoir, then the question does seem gross. (Answer this math problem to learn a no-so-fun-fact about Maya Angelou!) And even with context the question is a bit odd. No one who actually read Caged Bird could forget the trauma that Angelou went through. You wouldn’t need to solve for x and y to get the correct answer to this question. Is it possibly an “anticipation guide” to prep students to read the book?

Even if students had read the book, it’s an overly casual way to talk about sexual abuse. (Solve the puzzle: Who abused her?) Pennridge says it won’t happen again. “We apologize to anyone who was offended by the content of the assignment,” Rattigan’s statement continued, “and have taken steps to avoid such occurrences in the future.”

Update, 4 p.m.: The Intelligencer, a Bucks County paper, has a copy of the math worksheet.