Why selection is a wake-up call for the American Dream

30th October 2015 at 00:00
New film ‘Tested’ follows legal challenge to New York schools

The test Laurell is preparing to sit will decide which high school she goes to. But it will also determine a lot more than that.

“You have to think ahead when you’re choosing a high school,” the 13-year-old says. “If I go to a bad school, then I’m not going to have a good life. If I go to a good school, then I’m going to have a good career, a good future ahead of me.”

Laurell is one of the 8th grade (Year 9) pupils featured in Tested, a new film that follows teenagers from New York City as they prepare for the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test (SHSAT). This week, a preview of the film was shown to staff in the education department of King’s College London.

The showing was timely. It came in the same month that education secretary Nicky Morgan provoked controversy by announcing that she was approving the first new grammar school in half a century in Sevenoaks, Kent.

Tested reveals that academic selection is just as contentious on the other side of the Atlantic. It shows civil rights activists as they mount a legal challenge to the SHSAT selection system, claiming that it discriminates against children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Segregated schools, segregated society

In New York, 5,000 of the pupils who take the SHSAT each year are rewarded with admission to one of the city’s three ultra-selective specialised high schools, or one of five smaller, less prestigious specialised schools. And 23,000 pupils who sit the test are not.

“We talk about the American dream,” said the film’s director, Curtis Chin. “I don’t think the American dream is possible without a really strong public school system. It gives people – whether you’re rich or poor, native-born or immigrant, black, white or Latino – an equal opportunity to make something of yourself.”

And, he added, when the school system was segregated, so too was society: “As the income gap has widened, there’s more anxiety among parents of not wanting to fall on the wrong side of the equation.”

Tested follows 8th graders as they prepare for and then sit the SHSAT. For all of them, this involves attending tuition classes. “I’m only doing this because my mom tells me to,” one pupil says. “If she didn’t, I’d be home, playing computer games, wasting my life, being a horrible person.”

Fifteen per cent of pupils at New York’s state schools are from an East Asian background. By contrast, 29 per cent of SHSAT candidates are East Asian. Many of these families send their children for extracurricular tuition from the age of 6. But competitiveness crosses racial divides: a white woman is so doggedly determined that her children will succeed that even her East Asian friends have begun referring to her as a tiger mother.

Mr Chin acknowledged that it was natural for parents to want the best for their own children. “But you see this over-competitiveness when it comes to education,” he said. “You see families competing against each other. They see it as other people’s children taking the seats that belong to their kids. I don’t think that’s particularly helpful for long-term opportunities.”

‘Huge consequences’ for families

The film highlights the fact that places at good schools are significantly more available to children from middle-class or white backgrounds than to poor, African-American or Latino pupils.

“How can a student prepare for a test when they’re coming to school hungry or when they have safety issues getting from home to school?” Mr Chin said. “Or when they have a stressful situation at home, because the parents are both unemployed? People don’t want to have that conversation.”

Ada Mau, a research associate at King’s College London, was a consultant on Tested, which will be screened at Glasgow, Edge Hill and Leeds Trinity universities next week. She, too, questions the value of a selective schooling system.

“Selection isn’t good for education equality as a whole,” she said. “Maybe a small number of high-achieving children might benefit, but those lower down suffer from inequalities as a result of the system.”

The film also allowed viewers to understand the impact that high-stakes tests had on young teenagers and their families, she said. “The whole social mobility thing – obviously that’s what people strive for,” Dr Mau added. “These so-called elite schools lead to better universities, better careers. But these policies have huge consequences for families and their children.”

This is borne out in the film. For 13-year-old Laurell, the pressure of preparation eventually becomes too great and she decides not to sit the test after all.

School life through a lens

Tested is the latest in a line of recent US classroom-based documentary feature films, including:

American Promise (2013): follows two African-American boys over 13 years, from the start of their schooling to their departure for university.

Girl Rising (2013): nine schoolgirls from around the world struggle to achieve an education, while dealing with arranged marriages, child slavery and injustice.

Waiting for ‘Superman’ (2010): tracks several pupils as they hope to be accepted into a local charter school.

Race to Nowhere (2010): explores the physical and emotional consequences for pupils and their families amid the constant pressures of school, homework and the desire to achieve.

Spellbound (2002): eight American teenagers compete to win the 1999 national spelling bee.

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