Film sheds light on controversial test
In New York City, a single standardized test has the ability to determine a students’ future — and it’s not the SAT or the ACT. It is the SHSAT, the Specialized High School Admissions Test, and, if passed, the test promises a seat at one of New York City’s nine specialized high schools. “Tested,” a documentary by Curtis Chin released in 2015, follows a group of eighth graders from differing ethnicities and backgrounds, as well as middle schools across all boroughs, as they make their way through the testing process. Chin was on campus this past Wednesday, after a screening of the film in Golding, to speak further on the dynamic of this all-determining and stressful test.
The SHSAT has a particular air of frenzy surrounding it because, as depicted in “Tested,” the specialized high schools, particularly Stuyvesant, Bronx Science and Brooklyn Technical, are considered the Ivy League of New York City public high schools. The film focuses on how students feel that getting accepted into one of these schools has the power to positively change their lives by opening doors to opportunities, such as top colleges, that may not have otherwise been possible.
The bulk of “Tested” consists of interviews with children, parents, teachers, guidance counselors and other school officials that bring the audience into the homes of eighth graders and put the families and varying circumstances from which they are coming from on display. Some children are one of many siblings who have already taken the test, while some would be the first sibling to take it; some would be one of several students in their grade to take the test, while some would be the only one. Some attend private preparation classes or receive private tutoring for the test, while some go to school programs, and some do very little concrete preparation. The film stresses how test preparation can become a central part of a middle schooler’s life, starting even years before the time of the test.
Chin commented, “It’s not just about how different families approach education but how the education systems approaches different families.” A lack of diversity in these schools is a major concern, with the demographics being overwhelmingly white and Asian and with students mostly coming from a limited group of New York City neighborhoods. The SHSAT has come under scrutiny in recent years on whether or not a single two-and-a-half hour test, with an English and a math section, is a sufficient way to grant entry into a specialized high schools. Advocates for the change question whether students of every background have equal chance to do well on the test and whether the test is a sufficient way to measure a student’s potential. As shown in the film, however, the bill to change the one-test system was shot down in 2015.
Chin noted that a desire to promote social justice in the education system is in part what drove him to create the film. Prior to becoming a documentary filmmaker, Chin worked as a television writer, but after filming the documentary “Vincent Who?” (2009), Chin decided to take on the SHSAT as his subject, despite protest from the New York City Board of Education.
“Tested” moves through the harrowing process of applying to New York City high schools, primarily through the eyes of the eighth graders, and the children serving as the primary storytellers of the SHSAT experience strengthens the film. Although the parents may worry just as much as the kids, ultimately it is not the parents or the guidance counselors or the New York City Board of Education that takes the test; it is these eighth graders. There is also value in having the kids talk about their experiences in real time as they are going through the process rather than speaking about their experiences from memory, after they have had time to reflect. Regardless, the student’s vantage point as the main propulsion of the movie causes their anxiety to truly resonate through the film. When the students take their test,and then when they eventually open their notification letters, the audience feels as if they are being informed of their own results. More than anything, “Tested” displays how overwhelming this test can be, with these children feeling like their entire life is dependent on one test they take when they are twelve.