who am I and why should you care about this silly documentary?

Hello, my name is Ankur Singh and I’m 18 years old and just began my freshman year at the University of Missouri-Columbia majoring in Journalism. I’m making a Documentary film to capture the stories of students and how standardized testing has impacted them. If you’re reading this hopefully you’ll come to understand who I am and what I’m trying to accomplish as well as how you can help me.

This film isn’t a school project or an assignment I was given by some production company, but a personal project that I am pursuing independently. The idea really came about last year with a conversation I had with my French teacher, but the root of it starts a little bit earlier. My junior year of high school I was enrolled in an English class taught by the best teacher I ever had. This teacher 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. He really pushed us when analyzing poems and books and allowed us to form our own ideas and argue them well. It 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 ten times smarter.

Senior year came along and it was time to apply to college. I enrolled in AP English due to my great experience with English the previous year hoping it would be more rigorous and I would grow even more as a writer and as a person. I was wrong. The entire purpose of AP English was not to improve our critical thinking or our writing, but to prepare for the AP Exam in May and to get ready for college. We read great pieces of literature that I highly enjoyed and wanted to learn more about. But, instead of analyzing themes or characters 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. It frustrated me to no avail and I ended up doing very poor in AP English. And I found the exact same thing in all of my other AP classes, which seemed more focused on college preparation and standardized tests rather than genuine learning.

I just felt very alone. All around me were students studying diligently, stressing out about their grades, homework, the ACT, college essays, AP tests. And here I was not really caring about any of those things. Were there really no students in this school who wanted anything more than just a college degree and a job? Is that really the purpose of education?

In AP French is where I lost it. Last year the College Board was in the process of changing their AP French Exam. One day instead of her usual lesson my teacher gave us a pilot exam that the College Board wanted to test. I didn’t do it. 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. The next day at school I got called down to the counselor’s office. I never get called down to the counselor’s office. I was freaking out, and was freaking out even more when I walked in to see my French teacher sitting in the room as well. I was going to get in so much trouble. I was about to get a stern talking to and would be too embarrassed to show my face in French class ever again. Thankfully, this was not the case.

I’ve had my French teacher for three years of high school. She knows me very well and knows that I’ve done well in her previous classes. She said she’s been concerned about me all year that my grades have suddenly dropped. We talked for a long time. I told her my frustrations with all the testing, I told her why I was doing poorly in her class. I told her I felt defeated and how I feel like school is holding me back from reaching my true potential. And then she shared her own frustrations with testing. Of course! How could I be so arrogant to think that I was the only one who suffered from testing too? She told me how she doesn’t like teaching the test either. She told me how she’d rather have us watch French films or travel to a French bakery than to sit and do test prep. I asked them why there’s so much testing. My counselor said it’s very political. I understand. I know. And then my French teacher said something that I won’t forget for a long time, “Maybe if the students themselves spoke out against it, it could all change.”

Now I’m in college and I’m having a pretty good time. I love the community of people I’ve found myself in and the general environment here. Except for one thing: I’m not being challenged. My classes are easy. All I have to do is memorize the textbook and spew it out on the test. I’m not learning anything. I’m not growing.

So I’m taking next semester off to make this film. I’ll go back to college once I’m done, but I feel that now is the best time to make this film. No Child Left Behind was signed in 2001 when I was in first grade. Our generation is the first generation to really go through the entire education system with this stigma of testing and accountability. I need to make this film now, while I’m still young and the memories of high school still fresh in my mind.

I’ve been making films since I was in 3rd grade. It’s something that I’m very passionate about and have been practicing for a long time. I’ve written and directed short films with my friends and have had some great experiences. For two films my friends and I built large movie sets in my parent’s garage for under $30. I like telling people how much it cost because I’m really proud of those sets. They look great. We had to collect the lumber out of dumpsters at construction sites and then proceed to take out hundreds of nails and then measure and cut the wood to assemble it into our film set. I tell you this because it was really hard work and it’s this same hard work and dedication that I’ll be bringing to the documentary. Here is some of my previous film work if you want to watch: https://vimeo.com/33090924

From January-May next year I plan on traveling the country filming students of all different backgrounds who go to all different kinds of schools and tell their story of how standardized testing has affected them. I’m currently speaking with school districts around the country and have also contacted several student and parent groups around the as well.

Thanks to many technological advances I can make a professional-looking film for very cheap. I’m hoping to have the film completed around the end of 2013 or the beginning of 2014 and will submit it to several film festivals and see where it goes from there.

I don’t want to make this movie political. Because the issue here is so much more than standardized testing and accountability, it’s about our livelihoods. I just want to capture the emotional toll that testing has on us that’s lost in the education debate occurring today. 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. And 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.

All around the country there is a raging education debate going on. One thing I’ve noticed is that all of these advocates for education reform continue to ignore the student voice and what we ourselves have to say about our own education. This film is by students, about students, for students.  But, I need your help.

I’m looking for stories to tell. If you’re a parent or a teacher or a student who knows someone who has suffered from testing as I have please contact me. I want to film a few students go about their day and capture how testing has affected them. How does it affect their love of learning? How does it affect their self-esteem? What if what they’re truly passionate about isn’t measured by a standardized test? This is the story I want to tell, and every student has one worth telling.

I’m searching for students who exemplify the problems with testing. For example, a student who’s been subjected to institutionalized racism perpetuated by the tests and our education system, a student who’s true passions and talents are being ignored, a student whose learning style to is be active and engaged rather than passive, or maybe a student who lives in poverty. Or maybe you know someone who’s suffered for completely different reasons. Reasons I’ve never even considered.

Everyone else seems to be doing all right. I don’t know if the reason I did poorly in school is because there’s something genuinely wrong with our education system or if I’m just a screw up. So, I’m traveling the country to find out. This movie isn’t really about standardized testing, it’s a soul search…actually this sounds corny. Disregard that last sentence.

So, if you could help me out that would be much appreciated. I can film anytime from January-May 2013, depending on what works best for you. If you need any more information that would help you please feel free to contact me.

Thank you,

Ankur Singh

Email: listenthefilm@gmail.com

Phone: 309-838-4265

21 thoughts on “who am I and why should you care about this silly documentary?”

  1. I am so glad ou are doing this! Please contact me. Here is Chicago I know a mom whose special needs son was being kept in from recess this fall for more test prep by a special ed teacher who yelled and slapped her hand on desks in anger at the children. At the other end of the experience, I know another mom whose daughter got a perfect score on the ISAT, which has got to b rare, and she was still denied admittance into the Whitney Young Academic Center, a program that is very challenging and designed exactly for the kind of student she is. The mom is convinced that the principal kept her daughter back because her perfect score can raise the class average so much higher, and now, teachers will be evaluated on student test scores.
    I know that one of th highest ranked elementary schools in Illinois — Keller — throws out its 8th grade Reading class and replaces it with the most boring test prep every day and test prep homework every night from January until the night before the ISAT in mid-March. My daughte went from a 97 reading and 99 math to a 98 reading and 98 math after all that boring work. And she was not well prepared for high school. There is a crazy over-emphasis on testing starting this year. Kindergartners are taking 14 standardized tests. I hear of children crying and soiling themselves because they are so afraid.
    So please call me! Thanks so much!


  2. Hey Maureen, thanks for reaching out. The stories you describe are incredebly compelling, I’d love to talk to you more about them. I’ll definitely email you.

    – Ankur

  3. last yr my 4th grader was laying in bed crying about everything she can’t do and she had to take the state test. i called her teacher told her that emily was taking a mental health day, then sent a letter to the principal to make other arrangements for Emily because she wasn’t taking the test. there are no other arrangement so I told emily to sit there and doodle….she did and got a 0, my response “so what”. I did also write letters to the director of special education and the principal about how wonderful the teachers are and how unfortunate that they are testing the teachers on my child’s back. She gets extended time because of her learning disability and the state of NY thinks it is ok for an 11 yr to spend 3 hours testing. it is stupid….so yes feel free to contact me…karin del valle

  4. Ankur:
    My son is active, healthy and bright. When he started kindergarten, he could read and do simple math. Soon, his teacher was upset that he wasn’t writing essays! I tried to tell her that he is five years old and that maybe he wasn’t ready to start writing yet. She was panicked: “He will have to take the writing FCAT in 4th grade!” It got worse every year and hit a crescendo in 5th grade. Our happy child was miserable, sullen, and mouthy. Every night became a battle over homework–worksheet after worksheet for hours. We found out that he hadn’t had recess in weeks and that they were watching science movies in the once-a-week PE! When we complained, the teacher told the class that she cared about them and wanted them to pass the FCAT and that was why they didn’t have more recess. Sometimes she would give recess but not for my son! Nope. He was punished because he didn’t turn in some homework project or get his agenda signed or some other offense. We were truly afraid that he would be turned off from learning forever. That was when we found out that it is a national epidemic. It is my belief that the testing is tied to the school-to-prison-pipeline in Florida. Your documentary is not silly! Thank you for what you are doing!

  5. Thank you for taking on this project! I’ve blogged about testing in my kids’ school, which was an INSANE experience last year for both my older daughter and for me (I was substituting in the school at the time so my schedule was disrupted so I could accommodate the second of two PRACTICE tests, and to proctor the actual test for 4 days in March). Our school has just finished the first practice test this week, FOUR MONTHS before the actual test in March, and my daughter is sick of sitting on her backside doing literally nothing DURING the test once she’s completed each section, and of spending ridiculous amounts of time doing test prep each year.

    I am trying to work out how to opt her out of the test this year, but in our state (Maryland), students who don’t take the MSA’s are scored as zeroes, meaning the classes’ and schools’ scores are pulled down – and I don’t want her teacher to suffer for this, as she does bust her backside trying to challenge my child while still having to teach within the strictures handed down From On High.

    So when my daughter came to me with questions about the MSA, about the practice tests, about what the school even does with the practice scores, I didn’t have answers for her, so she wrote a letter to her school challenging the process. She only took it to school earlier this week and we haven’t heard back, but I was so impressed that with her permission I put it on my blog: http://crunchyprogressiveparenting.blogspot.com/2012/11/a-childs-response-to-standardized.html She says she’s happy to share it with you on your project too. 🙂

    I’ll email you our email. 🙂

  6. For a short time I was a prep school English teacher. I taught an AP class. There is some value in focusing the curriculum. But, high schools use it to be able to demonstrate to taxpayers and prospective paying parents colleges their value, which parents have to pay for on top of the taxes or tuition they already pay assuming they are getting focused, valuable curriculum in the first place. AP is a highly successful scam of mutual assured destruction among schools that few have the guts to stop. And it does not assure early graduation from college, only that early survey classes in college are missed. Looking back, those were some of the best classes I had in college. College students should be thinking of American history from the teaching of a college professor instead of a high school teacher, for example, instead of focusing on some small sliver of Swedish history, as one of my children unexplainably did at a major Midwestern university. I was never so proud as when I successfully objected to my daughter’s AP high school math teacher requiring the students opting out of the AP test to take another test for which the AP test takers were going to be given an automatic A, thereby effectively requiring payment of the AP fee for a grade. No one had ever objected. In any other scenario, had offered the teacher $50 for an A for my daughter and she accepted it, we probably would have broken a law. Schools and parents should have the guts just to say no. And my children know friends who got into the same good schools they got into without ever taking an AP class. Stop the AP scam.

  7. This is a great project. As a teacher I remind my students that, unlike most other policy issues, they are experts and (should) have one of the most powerful voices in the field of education. I work at BASIS Tucson, which you should google and research. It takes AP testing to the extreme. Please contact me to discuss further.

  8. I am a mother and teacher in Milwaukee Wisconsin. I think your documentary idea is an excellent idea. Standardized testing is getting a bit out of control. My youngest child is 5 years old, and she has to take 2 different state tests three times this year. My daughter doesn’t seem to mind, and her teacher doesn’t push my daughter to do anything she’s not prepared to do, but I definitely have a problem with testing already being a factor when she should just be allowed to have fun and learn what she can. I also teach high school students who are very frustrated with being over tested. My older daughter is in seventh grade and she doesn’t seem to mind the over testing too much. Keep on working on your documentary!! Feel free to e-mail me and I look forward to seeing your film!

  9. From my daughter
    I am a seventh grade student. Although I see your point about the testing, I must wonder how you see this issue to be so problematic when there are even worse things going on in schools. For example, my classmates are wild and indifferent to the things we are supposed to be learning. They care more about breaking things and laughing about tragedies than their own education. This is because that is all they see and hear, in the media, the radio, and even from their own parents. I just think there are more important issues in our schools to be looked into.

    1. Hey, this is to your daughter:
      You say that your classmates are wild and indifferent to the things you are supposed to be learning. Standardized testing is a direct cause to this disconnect. It makes learning totally uninteresting and boring. Because of high-stakes testing we are now forced to sit down passively in our chairs and memorize mindless content completely irrelevant to our lives that we’re going to forget two weeks later. Instead students should be active. We should be creating things and doing things that are meaningful to us. I don’t want to be forced to learn something simply because it’s going to be on a test that will impact my future. I want to learn something that will change me and introduce me to new ideas and help me grow as a person.

      As for them breaking things and laughing about tragedies, I don’t know how to change that. To me those seem like behavioral issues which as you said they may be modeling after what they see in the media or how they were raised. I don’t know if there’s a systemic change we can make in education to address those issues, they seem like problems that occur in our society at large. Schools are microcosms of the world around us and behaviors that happen in the local community are bound to be brought into schools. But, then again I’m no expert, so I could be wrong.

      Hope I answered your questions.

  10. Hey Ankur,
    This is fabulous. I will email my story, but in the meanwhile, you may want to read (if you have not already done so) Lewis Terman’s, The Measurement of Intelligence. He is the grandfather of standardized tests. It’ll give you a picture into the history of high stakes testing, why they were instituted, and how things actually have not changed much. Through NCLB and now RttT, we have gone from labeling and classifying students to now labeling and classifying schools and districts.

    Lewis Terman, educational psychologist and originator of the Stanford-Binet intelligence test, convinced school districts to use high-stakes and culturally-biased tests to place ‘slow’ students in special ed classes using blatantly racist and classist reasoning: “…the fact that one meets this type with such frequency among Indians, Mexicans, and negroes suggests quite forcibly that the whole question of racial differences in mental traits will have to be taken up anew and by experimental methods. Children of this group should be segregated in special classes and given instruction which is concrete and practical. They cannot master, but they can often be made efficient workers, able to look out for themselves. There is no possibility at present of convincing society that they should not be allowed to reproduce, although from a eugenic point of view they constitute a grave problem because of their unusually prolific breeding.” (“The Measurement of Intelligence,” 1916)

    And then W.E.B. DuBois tells us: It was not until I was long out of school and indeed after the (first)World War that there came the hurried use of the new technique of psychological[IQ] tests, which were quickly adjusted so as to put black folk absolutely beyond the possibility of civilization.
    — W. E. B. Du Bois, 1940

  11. The work you are embarking on is by no means silly. This is very important and serious work. Teachers have been trying to express this sentiment for the past ten years and yet we are seen as lazy or having low expectations. I understand that there needs to be a way to quantify how we are improving out students’ academic lives, but grandiose testing is not the way to do it. Nor does it highlight the strengths and capabilities of our students. There is so much learning lost in the world of testing and no one, absolutely no one, is winning in this situation. What you are doing is brilliant and necessary. Dive right in and know that your experience and your intuition is leading you in the direction that tells you that something is so extraordinarily wrong with what is happening in the education world today.

  12. Hi Ankur-

    I teach at an Expeditionary Learning High School in Taos, NM. I’d love to chat with you, and invite you to either come in person to interview my students or interview via skype. Because we are a public charter school, our students are required to take all the state mandated tests. However, we really strive to focus on hands-on, relevant learning experience that involve authentic projects and authentic audiences. It’s a definite struggle to balance real learning with test prep, and I think we’re in a good place with it. I teach Juniors and Seniors. Please reach out- we’d love to be a part of your project.

    Brenda Peterson
    Vista Grande High School
    Taos, NM

  13. Thank you, Ankur. I was a teacher at a Catholic, Jesuit school, where the pedagogy of hundreds of years was more and more put aside to bow to the College Board’s stranglehold on college admissions. It’s one of the reasons I left, in fact. Also, when I’d occasionally agree with particular students that perhaps they shouldn’t go to college right away, I would be called down to the principal’s office–I’d get in trouble if I didn’t encourage students to “buy in” to this damaging system.

    Well done, and please keep up the good work.

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