Testing doesn’t sound like the most cinematic of subjects, but the images that independent filmmaker Ondine Rarey captures in her two companion documentaries about high-stakes assessments in New York City schools are provocative enough to give pause to activists on both sides of the testing debate. In the first film, Testing Mrs. Grube, Rarey zooms in on 5th grade teacher Marie Grube, who was required to spend three hours a day on scripted test prep to ready her Harlem students for the next citywide exam. Each time her classroom’s buzzer goes off,
signaling that it’s time for test drills, we see a scene rarely credited to “failing” schools: kids begging to continue with the reading or science activities that had enthralled them moments before.
In the second documentary, A Different Standard, Rarey shows how teachers at the progressive Central Park East elementary school—also in Harlem, but exempt from test prep requirements—help 5th graders blossom. Yet even its students’ achievements and its national reputation for excellence can’t prevent the school community from getting demoralized by the city’s threat-saturated testing regimen.
Rarey, who lives in California, is currently writing a study guide for her two 30-minute films, which she’s distributing to education schools and social welfare organizations in the hopes of sparking a more informed national conversation about testing. Teacher Magazine recently quizzed the filmmaker about whether the standards movement is ready for its close-up.
View trailers for the films Testing Mrs. Grub and A Different Standard, from Ondine Rarey Productions.
Q: Why did you decide to make these two documentaries about standardized testing?
A:I knew I wanted to make a film dealing with the topic of equity in public education, and it very quickly became apparent that standardized testing was the big story in both [schools]. At P.S. 161, the failing school, they didn’t have history anymore, they didn’t have science—it was just test prep. Everybody felt under the gun. Then, at Central Park East, the staff was constantly holding meetings about how to protect their programs from the [testing] onslaught.
Q: Going into the project, did you have any strong opinions about standardized testing?
Q: How about now?
A:I’m glad that people are paying attention to inner city schools because of the standards movement, but I feel like the learning experiences that are being offered to kids as a result are almost a punishment. It really was heartbreaking to see the P.S. 161 students getting put through those paces. They were really bored. I don’t know how to make P.S. 161 serve the populations that [it’s] serving, but standardized testing is not the answer. An integrated curriculum where kids are doing hands-on projects teaches them how to be critical thinkers. There was excellent teaching being done at Central Park East, and I think a lot of teachers would like to use those kinds of techniques and are being held back. There’s a lot of talent out there that I think is being squelched.
Q: Prepping for and taking tests might be boring, but if the data collected can help schools identify problems and design interventions to improve learning, it can be argued that it’s worthwhile. Did you feel this was happening?
A:No. It’s not identifying problems. It’s actually creating negative learning experiences for kids. But when someone gives them a book to read, you can see they have lots of ideas and they have a big capacity to understand. Those are the things that need to be tapped into.
Q: What most surprised you about how the test-prepping and test-taking process affected kids?
A:The kids actually got a thrill at the challenge of being asked to win. They probably felt like they were getting a bit more attention than they would have gotten otherwise. And the kids who passed were triumphant. The downside of that was that the kids who didn’t pass were devastated.
Q: What did the teachers and adminis trators you followed most resent about the testing requirements imposed upon them by the New York City Department of Education?
A:For the teachers at P.S. 161, it was being so overwhelmed with things that they were required to do that they didn’t have any time to teach. In the film, Marie [Grube] says, “I feel like a robot,” and I think they all felt like that. The thing that the principal of P.S. 161 resented most was resources. She wanted to give them all the test-prep stuff the white kids were getting. At Central Park East, the biggest issue was promotion. They hold kids back there, but they [didn’t want to be] required to do it by the government. The principal there did a great job of protecting the teachers and the kids from those pressures, but it made her job miserable. She said at one point, “I feel like everything I love about my job has been taken away from me.”
Q: Marie Grube was one of a handful of teachers at P.S. 161 who stopped doing the three hours a day of test prep prescribed by the city, but most of her colleagues stuck with it. At the end of the year, the school got off the “failing” schools list. Does this mean the test prep helped the kids learn?
A:It’s very possible that the scores went up because they did so much drilling. But then the question is, well, what do the scores mean?
Q: What do you think they mean?
A:That they are going to be good at following directions. That’s one thing they are all learning, how to figure out what’s expected of them and deliver that.
Q: Why do you think there’s such a disconnect between how bureaucrats think public education should be improved and how good teachers and administrators in the system think kids should be taught?
A:I think teachers and administrators ... are less respected now than at any time in the past. Anytime they raise questions about what the reform movement is doing to schools, they’re accused of being afraid of accountability. A lot of this reform stuff is coming from the business community. It’s sort of like if we went to doctors and said, “You guys don’t really know what you’re doing even though you spent all those years in medical school, so we’re going to tell you exactly what [you] need to do.”
Q: What do you think the long-term consequences of standardized testing will be on public education?
A:One of the main ones [will be] a new kind of inequity, where if you’re from a more disadvantaged background, you’re really not going to be offered a rich educational experience. You’re going to be taught how to follow directions and fill out forms. I think it’s a new way of taking all those people out of the game. Those kids are not going to be able to go to Harvard and Yale, ... but they’re going to be great in service jobs. You’re going to have a generation of people who don’t read books but also don’t read newspapers and magazines—things that keep us informed.
Q: Marie Grube makes quite an impression as a dynamic, thoughtful teacher who really cares about her students. How did you find such a compelling subject?
A: Nobody else wanted someone filming in their classroom. But I do think that says something about teachers. It makes me think if you walk into a classroom, generally you are going to find someone who cares very deeply about their students. I think that’s something we’ve forgotten about schools and teachers with all this reform stuff.
— Samantha Stainburn
A version of this article appeared in the October 01, 2005 edition of Teacher as Screen Test