Tested: Movie Review and Audience Reaction
By: Kelsey Gilbert
The Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT) serves as the only criterion for admittance into one of the eight highly selective public high schools in New York City. Students in their final year of surrounding middle school spend a large proportion of their time preparing for this test, which is essentially the most deciding factor in their futures. Doing well on this test and getting accepted into one of these elite public high schools serves as a way out of poverty for many students and their families, and it places them on a track to reaching the career goals that they dream of.
I had the opportunity to attend the screening of The film Tested at UMass Lowell as an enrichment event for my honors requirements. The film follows a few students of minority status through their preparation for this test. While the students were spending much of their time studying and doing practice tests, the parents conveyed more anxiety about the test than did the children themselves. When the results came in, there was much relief for most – though not all – of the featured students, their families, and the audience.
The documentary was fascinating in terms of how it showed the experience of the New York City school system from the standpoint of the children, their families, and the middle schools involved. The film demonstrated a huge community effort to better these students’ lives through preparing them thoroughly for the test. The families were very dedicated to their children’s academics because not only did they want the best for their child, but they knew that the entire family would benefit from the child’s success if they got into one of the elite schools. Despite their young age, most of the students themselves were also dedicated to doing well on the test so they could have more opportunities that are not offered in the rest of their public school system. Lastly, the schools were focused on increasing acceptance rates of their minority students by helping these students prepare.
I appreciated the acknowledgement of the benefits of practice testing while studying by the parents and teachers. The film also covered the negative side effects of test pressure that some of the students experienced, such as burnout. What I would have liked to see more of in the film is how to combat and prevent these side effects.
The process of applying to elite public high schools depicted in this movie reminded me a lot of applying to my chosen undergraduate and graduate programs. While some individuals in the film may think that these students are too young to go through this application and test taking process, it was clear from the movie that the students themselves gained more confidence and are now more prepared for their future academic and career endeavors.
The reaction from the audience made for an interesting discussion at the end of the movie with the director, Curtis Chin. Chin made sure to say that the film is not necessarily representative of how the testing process is for all of the students in the New York City education system, and that the film was focused on the importance of the test and the racial disparities within the public education system. Nevertheless, during the discussion there were probing questions of the benefits and disadvantages of standardized testing.
Question: Is the preparation for the standardized tests more important than the middle schools themselves?
Chin: Since the SHSAT is an optional test it is not focused on directly in the middle schools. There are prep classes offered specifically for the test in which the students can attend on their own time. The students who did attend the prep classes actually said they felt smarter and they were helping their fellow students in their everyday academics.
Question: Are the tests at higher levels, meaning are these middle school students being tested on a junior year of high school level?
Chin: No, the SHSAT is at the level they should be at.
Question: Do you think a standardized test is an accurate measure of one’s ability in a given subject?
Chin: In a given subject sure, like STEM fields. The test should not be the only deciding factor of acceptance, though. More factors should be involved in the acceptance process to reduce the involvement of racism.
I also asked the following question regarding the negative views of testing that are becoming more popular:
Question: What do you think of the negative beliefs many parents and teachers have towards testing?
Chin: I think periodic testing is fine. But opting out of testing? The notion of opting out from the perspective of a family that is stable is not as scary because of the many options you already have. But if you are from a poor family, and you perceive that you have very few options in life then you can see how families in those positions would not be as supportive of someone saying that because of the opportunities that tests can give you.
Chin talked a lot about the systematic racism in the school system and how these tests can offer minority families very beneficial outcomes for their children. The conclusion I came away with from this movie is that testing is not an evil thing included in education to make students miserable. Instead, testing offers great benefits that extend beyond school, and frequent practice testing is crucial for preparing students to take these important and potentially life-altering tests. In conclusion, the fact that cognitive effort put into studying and testing is remarkably beneficial for the futures of all types of students is demonstrated beautifully in this inspirational film.