Education Opinion

Standardization, the Movie

By Bill Wetzel — August 01, 2002 9 min read
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As New Yorkers battled over the Regents exams this past spring, the author and a few friends hit the streets to get it all on film.

“I just hope they’ll let me back in the building to get all my paintings,” student Emily Dinan told the film crew as she exited her high school. With the cameras rolling, she walked across the street and pulled a crumpled piece of paper from her pocket. It was an answer sheet, most of which had not been filled in. She explained that her proctor had refused to respond to questions regarding what was, to her, a frustrating standardized exam. She then confessed, “The second essay, I wrote them an essay about how ridiculous the test was.”

Not just anyone walks out of a high-stakes exam—in this case, a New York State Regents—after penning a critique of the test. But I’ll admit that as a recent high school graduate myself (class of ‘98), I was never a fan of standardized tests. In an education system burdened with a seemingly endless laundry list of grievances, crises, and failures, I had no idea how more Scantrons and No. 2 pencils could solve the fundamental problems in our schools.

So a year ago, I started Students Against Testing (NoMoreTests.com), a national network where young people can gather information and, if they choose, take action against exams. After two years of traveling the country, visiting schools, and interviewing students, I’d come to the conclusion that too many important education decisions were being made by people who’d never even taken the exams that they espouse. Most of all, I’d seen that too many students were filling in someone else’s blanks.

The words of George W. Bush on January 8, 2002, as he signed into law his No Child Left Behind Act, only strengthened my resolve: “We owe the children of America a good education. And today begins a new era, a new time in public education in our country. As of this hour, America’s schools will be on a new path of reform and a new path of results.”

—Photo by Josh Fisher

With that speech broadcast on national news, a response was needed—a nonstandardized response, that is. So, in the middle of a late-night envelope- stuffing session, I and a small group of high school and college students (including two aspiring filmmakers at New York University, where I was enrolled), decided to set aside the fliers. Brainstorms were scribbled on scrap paper, and the idea for a documentary film was born at 3 a.m. in a college dorm room. Within weeks, we picked up two video cameras, a microphone, and a few subway passes and decided to go where no standardized test will go: the streets.

Our classroom was New York City, our curriculum a small piece of poster board that read, “What do you think about standardized testing?” For the last few months of the 2001-02 school year, we staked out as many schools, offices, and streets as we could.

The Regents, a series of tests in five high school subject areas, have been an education staple in the state of New York for decades; only in 1999, however, did they become “high-stakes,” meaning that if a student got a 90 in, say, math class but a 64 on the corresponding Regents, he’d have to take the exam again. In the spring of 2001, Richard Mills, the state commissioner of education, added insult to injury by mandating that two dozen city schools that previously had been granted waivers, in order to use portfolios and other forms of assessment, would have to begin testing. That spring, seniors were required to pass the English Regents, and in the fall, incoming freshmen would have to pass all five Regents for graduation. Frustration was brewing. Soon after Mills’ announcement, more than 2,000 students, parents, and teachers marched on the capitol in Albany. The Regents were under attack more than ever before. We wanted to get the inside scoop, starting with the students.

One of the schools we knew we had to visit was Stuyvesant High. It’s nationally known as an intellectual powerhouse, a huge spawning pool for Harvard acceptance letters. We arrived at “Stuy” one early afternoon in mid-June, right in the middle of testing. Prowling the sidewalks with our poster boards in tow, we heard some students mutter the words “standard deviation,” while others cell- phoned their parents to let them know how the tests had gone. One teacher, who insisted on remaining anonymous, let us know, “I’m sorry to see that this talent at this school is wasted on such a mundane exam as the Regents.” William, a slightly frustrated senior, dubbed his school “Ivy League Factory Number One” and pointed, with a smirk, at his Barron’s Regents test-prep guide. A group of students engaged in a mock gambling session:

“Every point I get off, you give me a dollar, right?”

“So if you get five wrong, I owe you 5 dollars, and if I get five wrong, you owe me 5 dollars.”

“And if we both get 100, it’s canceled out.”

In an education system burdened with a seemingly endless laundry list of grievances, crises, and failures, I had no idea how more Scantrons and No. 2 pencils could solve the fundamental problems in our schools.

For the most part, the students at Stuy can afford to joke about the Regents. But the stakes are higher elsewhere. Since the exams were mandated for graduation in 1999, the dropout rate in New York City has increased by 25 percent, according to the state’s education department. In some impoverished neighborhoods, the increase exceeds 50 percent. Chino Hardin, a 21-year-old who grew up in East Flatbush, told us that the recent obsession with standardization is representative of what’s long been a troubled system. “You’re not teaching young people anything that’s relevant to them,” she claimed. “I dropped out of school in 9th or 10th grade. It just wasn’t interesting me. What they’re really saying with these tests is that we’re going to keep [students] in school from 9 to 3, throw a little history at them, and then spring this test on them, which we know they’re going to fail unless they can get tutors.”

Across all class lines, cynicism about the intellectual caliber of the exams was almost universal—until we took our cameras to Wall Street. In late May, we parked ourselves in the heart of the financial district at 5 p.m., just as throngs of stockbrokers and money managers were leaving their buildings. “The word ‘standard’ makes it possible to compare results from one group of students to another,” one reasonable-sounding guy explained. A giddy broker belted out, “They work . . . for me!” as he gave a thumbs up to the camera. And a slick-haired businessman politely told us, “Always guess ‘C.’ ”

Yet even the best test-prep tricks won’t appease those parents, teachers, and students who belong to the consortium of the city’s public alternative schools that, until 2001, had never been required to administer the Regents. At these schools, innovative projects, hands-on learning, and alternative forms of assessment have been practiced for years. Beacon School, located on the Upper West Side, was the scene of a walkout in June, as several dozen students left the building, refusing to take their Regents. Instead, they hit the streets wearing yellow T-shirts emblazoned with “Standardized Tests = Standardized Minds.” Some students pounded rhythms on empty water jugs, others blew bubbles into the air, and several wielded puppets. A miniature Albert Einstein had its own T-shirt with a quote from the real-life physicist: “I believe in standardized automobiles, not people.”

The rally, for many, was a funeral ceremony—for the creative school days of the past. One student proclaimed: “I resent the city leadership saying we should change our curriculum to meet these tests, which have lower standards. I resent that we should say to our history teacher, ‘No, we can’t do our civil rights project; no, we can’t do our New York City project; we have to spend hours memorizing dates and names and facts.’”

After an hour of protesting, the students marched for about 30 minutes through the clogged streets of Midtown to the building named for its inhabitant, McGraw- Hill, one of the most profitable manufacturers of testing-related products in the nation. The chants ranged from the goofy—"McGraw-Hill honey, you’re taking our school’s money"—to the slightly more astute—"Create, conceptualize, we don’t need to standardize.”

The words of George W. Bush on January 8, 2002, as he signed into law his No Child Left Behind Act, only strengthened my resolve: “We owe the children of America a good education. And today begins a new era.”

For our film crew, these last days of shooting were as chaotic psychologically as they were physically. Although we’d had fun interviewing hundreds of subjects and, in some cases, getting thrown out of schools, we were left with no easy answer. One financial guru on Wall Street threw this monkey wrench into the works: “Obviously education must be standardized, or it wouldn’t be fair. If it was haphazard, it wouldn’t be fair. There must be some standard of some kind, and until some better standard is found, there should be standardized tests.”

But the many statements made on camera—by young and old, rich and poor—were far from standardized. One camp believes that education is messy and spontaneous by its very nature. Another proclaims that schooling without effective accountability is like running a corporation without financial records. Many simply asked questions: Can students truly learn and be measured at the same time? How can we assess a school’s success without turning it into a test- taking factory?

When we interviewed Jon Katzman, founder and CEO of the test-prep giant Princeton Review, he offered a viable solution: Redefine assessment from the students’ point of view. “Why don’t we just ask kids what’s good and what’s bad [about their schools]? Take those answers, and park them side by side with the academic scores.” It made sense: If schools can assess students, why shouldn’t students assess schools? Katzman put together an assessment form, which he said could be distributed to students across the state and then studied. He pitched the idea to the New York City Board of Education, but to no avail.

Amid the clamor, I couldn’t help but remember Emily, the student who’d written a Regents essay challenging the exam. “I want to learn, but they don’t think I do,” she’d said of the state’s education leaders. “I’d like to see everyone cut the borders in between classes. Instead of having science over here and art over here, I’d like everyone to see the importance in everything.”

One surprise encounter reminded the film crew that testing is not what’s really at issue here—the very nature of learning is. After conducting interviews at the Institute for Collaborative Education, another alternative school, we stumbled upon Carlos, the after-hours janitor. Walking us through empty classrooms draped with student projects on the walls, he confessed: “I fought to work up here on this floor. I have teenage kids of my own. If I could, I would have them come here. I don’t tell my boss that the kids are here till 7 or 8 at night, working on projects. He doesn’t want them here that late. At other schools, kids are there because they’re forced to be there. Here, kids are here because they want to be here. Here, we have to literally throw the kids out of the building.”


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