Jason Stanford, 3/16/2014 [Archive]

'Divergent' is an Education Dystopia

'Divergent' is an Education Dystopia

By Jason Stanford

The next big teen franchise is about to explode over movie screens nationwide on Mar. 21, except this time the kids aren't scared of werewolves, zombies, dark wizards or sparkly vampires. The villain in "Divergent" is something they can't run away from and they can't kill: standardized testing. Kids these days live in a world in which their futures are determined by high-stakes testing, making "Divergent" a dystopia they can believe in.

Because of its resourceful and tough female protagonist, "Divergent" will draw comparisons to The Hunger Games franchise. But the popular Jennifer Lawrence movies are all about income inequality and poverty whereas the new film, based on the 2012 bestseller by Veronica Roth, questions whether our children can still determine their own futures.

The central feature of "Divergent" is that children are given aptitude tests that sort them by virtues, sometimes separating them from their families. These sorting tests are nothing new in popular young adult fiction. Harry Potter had the Sorting Hat that grouped students based on their innate traits. The Hunger Games held a lottery to single out a boy and a girl for ritualized murder. And in the Percy Jackson novels, only genetics—not skill, talents, or knowledge—could get a child into Camp Half Blood.

But "Divergent", intentionally or not, puts high-stakes testing at the center of the educational dystopia it portrays. As in present-day reality, testing takes time away from classroom instruction and occurs on a single day. The "Divergent" tests measure aptitude, not comprehension, and serve mainly to sort students according to immutable traits into one of five factions "to determine who we are and where we belong." In schools, we use standardized tests to figure out whether someone is "college or career ready."

To Monty Neill, executive director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, "Divergent" speaks to the No Child Left Behind generation that has, he says, a "growing consciousness" of the "varying degrees of alienation from school in which testing is a key part."

"Indirectly, they are a way impersonal forces control their lives and make their lives, in their perceptions, ... more boring," said Neill. "Testing is part of that. Clearly the evidence is that students are unhappy with the testing regime and how that is playing out in schools, the drill and kill."

The evidence Neill is thinking of is the rising tide of student-led strikes against testing. In California and Illinois, hundreds of students have walked out of tests. In Massachusetts, students protested by ignoring the essay prompt and writing their own essays explaining why they opposed the tests, a risky move when passing the test is a graduation requirement.

About half the student body at the New Vista High School in Boulder, Colorado came up with a new twist when students there wore white shirts, jeans and badges bearing their student identification numbers to protest the Colorado Students Assessment Program, chanting, "standardized tests produce standardized students."

In 2013, more than 50 students in Providence, Rhode Island inadvertently came up with the most apt demonstration against standardized testing when they held their "zombie protest." Made up as the undead, they staggered during downtown rush hour traffic while chanting "no education, no life." But zombies are so last year.

"There's a lot of growing protest in the misuse of standardized testing," said Neill. "A movie like that could capture that energy and advance that energy."

My sons, who face a pressure about standardized testing that is completely foreign to my generation, are already on my case to pre-order tickets for opening night. They are big fans of the novels and are eager to see this world on the silver screen, but in truth, they've already seen it every year in their school at test time.

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©Copyright 2014 Jason Stanford, distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.

Jason Stanford is a Democratic consultant who writes columns for the Austin American-Statesman and MSNBC. He can be reached at stanford@oppresearch.com and on Twitter @JasStanford.

This column has been edited by the author. Representations of fact and opinions are solely those of the author.

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