"Listen" will document the emotional toll testing takes on students.
There's plenty of debate among adults about standardized testing, but what do students think about it? 18-year-old University of Missouri-Columbia freshman Ankur Singh has decided to take the spring semester off from school in order to find out. He plans to make a documentary film, tentatively titled Listen based on what students tell him.
Singh, who is a journalism major, writes on his blog that making the documentary isn't a "school project or an assignment I was given by some production company." He's been thinking about the impact of our testing culture on students since his junior year when he was "enrolled in an English class taught by the best teacher I ever had."
The teacher, says Singh, "realized that most of his students were not going to be writing essays about Alexander Pope poems in their professional careers, so instead of focusing on memorizing the content of the literature, he focused on developing our critical thinking skills." As a result, Singh and his classmates were pushed to analyze literature and were allowed "to form our own ideas and argue them well." The class "was the only class I’ve ever taken where the lessons I learned will carry with me for the rest of my life, and after completion I felt 10 times smarter," says Singh.
In contrast, during his senior year of high school, Singh enrolled in AP English and hoped he'd further hone the writing and critical thinking skills he'd developed the year before. But, he quickly found out that the entire purpose of AP English "was to prepare for the AP Exam in May and to get ready for college." What did that look like? "Instead of analyzing themes or characters," says Singh, "our teacher would give us questions which we would have to write essays about in a 50 minute class period similar to what we would find on the AP Exam and in college classes." He grew frustrated with the test prep and longed for "genuine learning."
The same thing happened in Singh's AP French class, and when his teacher administered a pilot of the new AP French Exam, Singh's frustration boiled over. "I didn’t do it," he says. "Instead I wrote a very angry letter to the College Board in the margin of the answer sheet expressing my frustration with the way they have interfered with my education."
He ended up being called to the school counselor's office and had a conversation with the counselor and his French teacher where he detailed his concerns and how he felt "like school is holding me back from reaching my true potential." That's when Singh found out that his teacher was frustrated as well and would rather have the students "watch French films or travel to a French bakery than to sit and do test prep.
"And then my French teacher said something that I won't forget for a long time," says Singh. "'Maybe if the students themselves spoke out against it, it could all change.'"
Singh plans to travel across the country from January-May 2012 filming students from diverse backgrounds and schools so they can tell their stories. He hopes to avoid the politics of the standardized testing debate and simply "capture the emotional toll" on the No Child Left Behind generation.
Singh already has all the equipment he needs but he has a Kickstarter to help fund his travel expenses—he only has until December 14 to reach his funding goal of $2,000. (As of this writing, he's a little more than halfway there.) He's also looking for students to interview so if you know a student who feels particularly passionate about the issue, email him at email@example.com.
"I don't think enough people realize that behind every one of those test scores is a living, breathing child who has dreams and aspirations that may or may not align with what’s being measured on standardized tests," says Singh. "I also want to show people the talent us young people have that’s being suppressed by showcasing incredible things youth can do when we're at our best."
Click here to add funding Singh's Kickstarter to your GOOD "to-do" list.
Teacher supervising students taking standardized test image via Shutterstock