Movie Review: Tested

About Jake Miller

Mr. Jake Miller teaches middle school history near Harrisburg, PA. He is the 2016 National History Day Pennsylvania Teacher of the Year and a 2017 NEA Teacher of Excellence. His articles have appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, WeAreTeachers, and several other periodicals, but Miller has called TER home since 2012.

Think that there’s a lot on the line for kids taking tests? Plenty of pressure? Stress? Difficulties? Mess?

Welcome to New York City Public Schools, says writer, producer, and director Curtis Chin in his film Tested.

His story line follows twelve 8th grade students who are wrangling over the decision to take the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT for short), a qualifying test to – you guessed it – be enrolled in a specialized high school.

No place is this more important than the Big Apple, where schools are as varied and diverse as the population. For 13- and 14-year-old students living in the 5 boroughs, doing well on the SHSAT can be their ticket to a top-rated school, then a college scholarship, and a launch to a successful career. For some, it’s following in their parents footsteps. For others, it’s the only ticket out of poverty. They simply need to meet whatever qualifications necessary to be enrolled in one of the city’s specialized schools.

These schools are what the New York Post calls “The Elite Eight.”  The main focus is Stuyvesant High School, the top performing school in the city. Stuyvesant is, predictably, also a top choice for most of the students; however, since it sets an elite score that only so many are able to meet, most students know that their chances are 1:6 — or less.

The 12 students at the focus of Tested are as diverse as their chances and representative of New York City’s famous cosmopolitan composition. Among them are first-, second-, and long-time generations of Americans. They represent multiple religions. The hopefuls are of a variety of races and ethnicities, but their common goal is to make the cut at the specialized school and be one of the 18% or so who make it there.

Their struggle and stress to reach that point is also a common thread. They attend late night tutoring sessions that most of us assumed only occurred in South Korea and Hong Kong. The 8th graders work late and they work hard, mostly because their parents demand it.

Educators watching the movie can certainly recognize some of the students who won’t meet the demands of the rigor, for the test. One student stands out by claiming that he finds the verbal portion of the SHSAT to be “boring,” and his tutor – a gentleman who works for free, by the way – calls home to share that information with his mother.

The movie, approximately 90 minutes long, was a truly great documentary. It is fair and well-balanced showcase of facts and situations that New York City’s youth currently experience. While any educator watching a film on standardized testing certainly will approach it with several strong-willed opinions, Tested caused me to walk away with more questions than answers. And that’s not a bad thing.

That’s because the film is filled with interesting statistics and stories. Some other interesting statistics includes who makes it to these schools and who does not. Approximately 23% of the students accepted speak Chinese at home. Though the African American and Latino are more than 50% of the school system’s demographic, they are less than 5% of those selected to the specialized schools. At Stuyvesant, they gave just 7 black and 21 Latino students acceptance letters last year. The most moving portion of these facts is that each is supported with a balanced story.

When we met Chin after the film’s showing, it was great to listen to him answer questions, because he seemed to have more of them than answers. He also mentioned that he had lots to learn about schools, especially since he himself is not an educator. Writing and filming the documentary actually caused him to check many of his facts at the door, which included the fact that doing away with the test and/or adding multiple layers to the specialized schools application actually dropped the acceptance rates of blacks and Latinos.

Any philosophical thinker that has an interest in public education should see this documentary. It is not for the light of heart, but neither is education. Tested will leave you looking for the answers, and they’re not on a multiple choice Scantron sheet. We should thank Chin for that.

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About the Author:

Mr. Jake Miller teaches middle school history near Harrisburg, PA. He is the 2016 National History Day Pennsylvania Teacher of the Year and a 2017 NEA Teacher of Excellence. His articles have appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, WeAreTeachers, and several other periodicals, but Miller has called TER home since 2012.

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