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Columbia Missourian

FROM READERS: Young filmmaker's documentary challenges standardized testing

September 30, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT

Ankur Singh spent a semester of his freshman year traveling across the country to film "Listen." To learn more about Ankur's project, check out the film's website here.

Listen - Official Trailer from Ankur Singh on Vimeo.

Whoever controls the narrative of public education controls the public perception of the issue.

On TV, we have Bill Gates, Michelle Rhee, Arne Duncan and "Waiting for 'Superman'" talking about failing schools, low standards, common core, China and teachers unions, but rarely do they ever talk about students.

Who is going to tell the story of public education? Is it going to be the corporate-education reformers who haven’t spent a day teaching in their entire lives, or is it going to be the students, teachers and parents who live the realities of these policies every day in the classroom?

To address this, I took last semester off school, traveling all across the country to make a documentary that shows the human side of the debate which, with the emphasis on test scores, is easy to forget. By telling the stories of how testing has directly affected students, teachers and parents, those removed from the education sphere are given a window into the realities of what’s happening in classrooms all over the country and students struggling in school feel connected to each other and empowered to use their voices to change the education system.

The film, titled "Listen," which I just finished and will soon play across the country, grew out of my own personal frustrations when I was in high school. I was always passionate about learning and loved to read and write, so I signed up for tons of Advanced Placement classes expecting them  to be challenging college-level courses that would expand my critical thinking and creativity. But what I got instead were classes that consisted of rote memorization of information and constant test preparation instead of genuine learning. It angered me, and eventually I just stopped studying and my grades dropped. How come us students were never asked what we wanted from our own education?

AP French was where I lost it. Two years ago, the College Board was in the process of changing its 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 an 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. Thankfully, this was not the case.

I’d had my French teacher for three years of high school. She knew me really well and knew that I’d done well in her previous classes. She said shed been concerned about me all year after my grades 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 felt like school was 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? She told me how she didn’t like teaching the test, either. She told me she’d rather have us watch French films or travel to a French bakery than sit and do test prep. And then my French teacher said something I won’t forget for a long time: “Maybe if the students themselves spoke out against it, it could all change.” So that’s what I tried to do.

This story is part of a section of the Missourian called From Readers, which is dedicated to your voices and your stories. We hope you'll consider sharing. Here's how. Supervising editor is Joy Mayer.