Ankur Singh is a freshman at the University of Missouri-Columbia who is making a documentary film about how standardized testing has impacted young people. Here’s Ankur’s personal testing story and an explanation of what the movie is all about. Ankur published this here with the headline, “Who am I and why should you care about this silly documentary?” It sounds like anything but silly.

By Ankur Singh

Hello, my name is Ankur Singh and I’m 18 years old and just began my freshman year at the University of Missouri-Columbia majoring in journalism. I’m making a documentary film to capture the stories of students and how standardized testing has impacted them. If you’re reading this hopefully you’ll come to understand who I am and what I’m trying to accomplish as well as how you can help me.

This film isn’t a school project or an assignment I was given by some production company, but a personal project that I am pursuing independently. The idea really came about last year with a conversation I had with my French teacher, but the root of it starts a little bit earlier. My junior year of high school I was enrolled in an English class taught by the best teacher I ever had. This teacher realized that most of his students were not going to be writing essays about Alexander Pope poems in their professional careers, so instead of focusing on memorizing the content of the literature he focused on developing our critical thinking skills. He really pushed us when analyzing poems and books and allowed us to form our own ideas and argue them well. It was the only class I’ve ever taken where the lessons I learned will carry with me for the rest of my life and after completion I felt ten times smarter.

Senior year came along and it was time to apply to college. I enrolled in AP English due to my great experience with English the previous year hoping it would be more rigorous and I would grow even more as a writer and as a person. I was wrong. The entire purpose of AP English was not to improve our critical thinking or our writing, but to prepare for the AP Exam in May and to get ready for college. We read great pieces of literature that I highly enjoyed and wanted to learn more about. But, instead of analyzing themes or characters our teacher would give us questions which we would have to write essays about in a 50 minute class period similar to what we would find on the AP Exam and in college classes. It frustrated me to no avail and I ended up doing very poor in AP English. And I found the exact same thing in all of my other AP classes, which seemed more focused on college preparation and standardized tests rather than genuine learning.

I just felt very alone. All around me were students studying diligently, stressing out about their grades, homework, the ACT, college essays, AP tests. And here I was not really caring about any of those things. Were there really no students in this school who wanted anything more than just a college degree and a job? Is that really the purpose of education?

In AP French is where I lost it. Last year 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 a very 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. I was about to get a stern talking to and would be too embarrassed to show my face in French class ever again. Thankfully, this was not the case.

I’ve had my French teacher for three years of high school. She knows me very well and knows that I’ve done well in her previous classes. She said she’s been concerned about me all year that my grades have 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 feel like school is 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 too? She told me how she doesn’t like teaching the test either. She told me how she’d rather have us watch French films or travel to a French bakery than to sit and do test prep. I asked them why there’s so much testing. My counselor said it’s very political. I understand. I know. And then my French teacher said something that I won’t forget for a long time, “Maybe if the students themselves spoke out against it, it could all change.”

Now I’m in college and I’m having a pretty good time. I love the community of people I’ve found myself in and the general environment here. Except for one thing: I’m not being challenged. My classes are easy. All I have to do is memorize the textbook and spew it out on the test. I’m not learning anything. I’m not growing.

So I’m taking next semester off to make this film. I’ll go back to college once I’m done, but I feel that now is the best time to make this film. No Child Left Behind was signed in 2001 when I was in first grade. Our generation is the first generation to really go through the entire education system with this stigma of testing and accountability. I need to make this film now, while I’m still young and the memories of high school still fresh in my mind.

I’ve been making films since I was in 3rd grade. It’s something that I’m very passionate about and have been practicing for a long time. I’ve written and directed short films with my friends and have had some great experiences. For two films my friends and I built large movie sets in my parent’s garage for under $30. I like telling people how much it cost because I’m really proud of those sets. They look great. We had to collect the lumber out of dumpsters at construction sites and then proceed to take out hundreds of nails and then measure and cut the wood to assemble it into our film set. I tell you this because it was really hard work and it’s this same hard work and dedication that I’ll be bringing to the documentary. Here is some of my previous film work if you want to watch:

From January-May next year I plan on traveling the country filming students of all different backgrounds who go to all different kinds of schools and tell their story of how standardized testing has affected them. I’m currently speaking with school districts around the country and have also contacted several student and parent groups around the as well.

Thanks to many technological advances I can make a professional-looking film for very cheap. I’m hoping to have the film completed around the end of 2013 or the beginning of 2014 and will submit it to several film festivals and see where it goes from there.

I don’t want to make this movie political. Because the issue here is so much more than standardized testing and accountability, it’s about our livelihoods. I just want to capture the emotional toll that testing has on us that’s lost in the education debate occurring today. I don’t think enough people realize that behind every one of those test scores is a living breathing child who has dreams and aspirations that may or may not align with what’s being measured on standardized tests. And I also want to show people the talent us young people have that’s being suppressed by showcasing incredible things youth can do when we’re at our best.

All around the country there is a raging education debate going on. One thing I’ve noticed is that all of these advocates for education reform continue to ignore the student voice and what we ourselves have to say about our own education. This film is by students, about students, for students.  But, I need your help.

I’m looking for stories to tell. If you’re a parent or a teacher or a student who knows someone who has suffered from testing as I have please contact me. I want to film a few students go about their day and capture how testing has affected them. How does it affect their love of learning? How does it affect their self-esteem? What if what they’re truly passionate about isn’t measured by a standardized test? This is the story I want to tell, and every student has one worth telling.

I’m searching for students who exemplify the problems with testing. For example, a student who’s been subjected to institutionalized racism perpetuated by the tests and our education system, a student who’s true passions and talents are being ignored, a student whose learning style to is be active and engaged rather than passive, or maybe a student who lives in poverty. Or maybe you know someone who’s suffered for completely different reasons. Reasons I’ve never even considered.

Everyone else seems to be doing all right. I don’t know if the reason I did poorly in school is because there’s something genuinely wrong with our education system or if I’m just a screw up. So, I’m traveling the country to find out. This movie isn’t really about standardized testing, it’s a soul search…actually this sounds corny. Disregard that last sentence.

So, if you could help me out that would be much appreciated. I can film anytime from January-May 2013, depending on what works best for you. If you need any more information that would help you please feel free to contact me.

Thank you,

Ankur Singh