Tennessee’s debate about over-testing is a cause célèbre — or at least a cause drawing the attention of Matt Damon.
The movie star narrates a new documentary that explores the privatization of public schools. It features Nashville’s Gower Elementary School, as well as board member Amy Frogge of Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.
Called “Backpack Full of Cash,” the 90-minute film was released in late 2016 and screened this week at the Nashville Film Festival.
“I got involved in ‘Backpack Full of Cash’ because I believe that every kid should have access to great public schools,” Damon said in a statement. “… I got a great education in public schools, and my mom is an educator so I know just how hard teachers work every day.”
The segment featuring Gower Elementary was filmed in the spring of 2014 as students prepared for TCAP tests. A scene showing students practicing multiple-choice questions is followed by a comment from education writer David Kirp: “I’ve sat through those classes. I could barely sit still for 42 minutes. They’re asked to do it for 12 years.”
The film details a long list of tests that Gower students take during the school year, ending with four days of state-mandated testing.
Filmmakers Sarah Mondale and Vera Aronow said they chose to focus that part of the film on Tennessee because of the state’s 2010 Race to the Top win of $500 million in federal funds, which was spurred by a slew of reforms with test data at their core.
“(Tennessee) was a leader in the use of data and testing to drive education — a key part of market-based school reform,” Mondale said.
The movie also covers charter schools in Philadelphia and school vouchers in New Orleans. Both have been hotly debated issues in Tennessee as well.
The film’s title pokes at an argument often made by school choice advocates: that public money should follow students, no matter what school they attend.
“This idea that education is nothing more than the sum of public money that follows kids around is exactly the argument that the film is trying to refute,” Mondale said.
Since the movie’s filming, Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has twice convened task forces to reduce testing, resulting in the elimination of required eighth- and tenth-grade tests. After test times ballooned in the first year of TNReady in 2016, the state shortened the English test this year. (For fifth-graders, it’s dropped from 226 minutes during the last year of TCAP in 2014-15, to 195 minutes this year.) Meanwhile, testing in math has gotten longer (92 minutes in 2014-15 vs. 115 minutes this year), and science has stayed the same. This year’s social studies test is a shortened field test.
McQueen says her department has taken pains to make the current tests more engaging, while emphasizing that the best test prep is “good teaching,” not tedious practice questions.
“Backpack Full of Cash” is a co-production of Stone Lantern Films Inc. and Turnstone Productions. You can find more information about the film and how to watch it here.