Before making the film Defies Measurement, Shannon Puckett taught at Alameda’s Chipman Middle School for five years. The school’s story is central to the film’s depiction of how high-stakes testing is negatively impacting public schools.

Defies Measurement shows what happened when research-based teaching and project-based assessments gave way to pressure from the state to raise test scores. The school eventually closed and a charter school opened in its place. In the film, experts, policymakers, teachers, and parents shed light on the ripple effect of high-stakes testing.

Why and for whom did you produce the film?
I wanted to respond to the dominant rhetoric about failing schools. When No Child Left Behind started, I was teaching at Chipman, where we were doing amazing things based on brain research… emotional and social learning, hands-on and project-based activities. Kids were excited about learning.

But our test scores were low and the state said we had two years to raise them. We went into survival mode and stopped doing what our students loved about school.

So I wanted parents and people on other side of the political aisle to see the film. But over time, I realized I also want educators to see it.

What lessons did you learn from the experience at Chipman?
Understanding how children learn, and focusing on the social and emotional aspects of relationships so students feel safe expressing themselves and asking questions… these must be in place for an effective teaching and learning environment.

What were the biggest challenges the Chipman community faced during this time?
It was difficult for us to grapple with the new expectations without compromising all the effective strategies we’d already implemented.

Middle school is an important time. You can lose the kids who start to check out, so it’s even more critical to focus on how to engage and help them become lifelong learners.

Why do you think many smart, promising kids don’t do well on standardized tests?
Higher-level thinking can conflict with multiple-choice questions because often you see more than one answer.

If students get feedback that they’re not as bright as they thought, their self-esteem suffers. If they are excited about learning and understanding what’s taught, but don’t do well on a test, they start to doubt themselves. Low scores can take the joy out of education.

Is doing well on standardized tests a reliable predictor of success?
There’s so much more than how students answer a test, more important skills that kids demonstrate in school. Collaboration, creativity, curiosity, initiative, ingenuity… these are the qualities you carry with you to succeed.

How do you respond to Arne Duncan and others who insist our students are not competitive?
They have misused the data. Scores alone don’t measure teacher effectiveness or what kids know. While these guys say U.S. scores are low, our schools with less than 10 percent poverty are number one. Even schools with 25 percent poverty are doing pretty well. The schools with 75 percent poverty rates are the ones not performing.

How have viewers reacted? 
I get amazing feedback from schools with similar stories. It just came out a month ago and has reached more than 12,000 people in 87 countries. It’s being used as a tool to fuel the movement to opt out of high-stakes testing. 

— Interview by Mindy Pines, CFT Reporter