Singh speaks out against standardized testing in documentary

Ankur Singh's film, “Listen,” will share students’ stories as they struggle to perform on standardized tests.


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The difference between most of us, whining and crying about the horrors of standardized testing, and MU freshman Ankur Singh is that he's actually trying to do something about it. This upcoming spring, Singh will take the semester off to begin filming a documentary about the drawbacks of standardized testing.

The native of Bloomington-Normal, Ill., who's experimented with making videos but has never made a feature-length film, says the secret to his documentary is doing something unheard of within the educational system: he's going to go to the students for their opinions.

The documentary, tentatively titled “Listen,” will feature interviews from students from across the country who have experienced the trials and tribulations of standardized testing. The film’s tagline is, “Nothing about us, without us, is for us.”

“There’s no student voice in education today,” Singh says. “Politicians make laws about education, but they don’t address the students.”

He hopes his film will change that.

“There’s been a bunch of documentaries and books about how screwed up education is,” he says. “I want the students to be the main idea and show examples of what students are going through.”

He says perhaps if other students see the film, they might feel empowered to take a stand to improve their education, especially because the basis for the documentary comes from Singh’s own experiences in high school.

When Singh started taking Advanced Placement classes his senior year, he grew weary of the constant test prep and practice essays his teachers forced on him. He says wasn’t learning anything and received poor grades.

So during an AP French practice exam, instead of writing an essay, Singh wrote an angry letter to the College Board about how it was interfering with his education. After getting called into the office, Singh spoke with teachers and learned that they were frustrated with the system, too, and that the issue with standardized testing is a political one.

Singh has garnered a lot of attention for "List" after his blog was featured on the Washington Post website. Since that high-profile shout out, he says he has received countless emails from parents and students who want to share their education system horror stories.

For the film, in addition to conducting interviews, Singh will shadow students as they go about their school day. Between January and May he plans to travel to Texas, Florida, New York, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Los Angeles, and more to film his subjects.

One of the stories to appear in the film is about a Colorado special education teacher, Darciann Samples, and her son. Samples, a National Board-certified teacher, says she has seen the toll that standardized tests can take on students.

“For decades I’ve seen my kids progress as far as they can, and then they get a test that is two or three levels over their head, and it’s so depressing,” she says.

Her son, Isaac, 11, was in the fifth grade when he grew very anxious about a major test that many of his teachers stressed in class. With his mother’s support, he decided to opt out of taking the test, to which many teachers and administrators responded poorly. Samples says the principal forced Isaac to take the test despite his parents’ wishes.

“For the essay portion, he simply wrote, ‘Recycling is good. You should do it,’ with incorrect punctuation and randomly uppercased letters,” Samples says. “The principal didn’t make him take the rest of the test after that.”

Samples says she is an active member of the educational reform movement and believes that a better model for rating schools is needed.

Singh says he intends to return to MU next fall after he finishes the documentary, which will premiere at the end of 2013.

“I think most students don’t think there is anything they can do to change (the education system),” he says. “I think that’s really the biggest roadblock. If we can get past that, maybe we can get students to speak out.”

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