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Published in Print: October 11, 2000, as Polls Dispute a 'Backlash' To Standards

Polls Dispute a 'Backlash' To Standards

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The widely discussed backlash against the standards movement has been overstated, an opinion poll released last week and other recent surveys suggest.

The latest examination of public attitudes on the subject found solid majorities of parents "strongly approve" of policies that end social promotion, place low achievers in mandatory summer school, and require high school exit exams.

For More Information

The Public Agenda survey results are now available, as well as the National Issues Forums report. (Requires Adobe's Acrobat Reader.)

What's more, of the parents surveyed who were aware of local standards efforts, 82 percent said that local officials had been "careful and reasonable" in setting academic standards for students to reach, according to the poll results released last week by Public Agenda.

"What was surprising to us is the strength of support, not just for higher standards, but for the testing and accountability that go with it," said Deborah Wadsworth, the president of the nonpartisan, New York City-based research organization, which has surveyed the public on education issues for the past decade. "So much ink has been dedicated to the backlash. It's enormously exaggerated."

The Public Agenda report adds to a growing list of polls that have essentially reached the same conclusion: The public, whether parents of public school children or not, endorses the drive to raise academic expectations.

But while people see standardized tests or other assessments as valid measurements of student progress—either individually or in groups—they grow suspicious if the test results carry too much weight in crucial decisions, such as high school graduation or promotion to the next grade, the surveys suggest.

'Breadth and Depth'

Critics of standards-based education and testing initiatives say that it's easy to generate positive responses toward such policies by quizzing the public about the general goals of the movement. The polls, they say, don't measure the opposition that gathers once testing programs start changing what and how children are taught.

"I haven't met anybody who is for low standards," said Bob E. Peterson, a 5th grade teacher in the Milwaukee district and an editor of Rethinking Schools, a journal critical of testing practices. "The question is: When you scratch the surface of standards-based education, it becomes standardized-test-driven education. The public would be much more sympathetic to a non-test-driven package."

From Sept. 18 to Sept. 26, Public Agenda surveyed 803 parents whose children attend public schools. The poll's margin of error is 3 percentage points.

Sixty percent said they "strongly approve" of requiring "students to meet higher academic standards in order to be promoted or to graduate." Another 21 percent said they "somewhat approve" of those strategies.

Similarly, 85 percent endorsed either "strongly" or "somewhat" efforts to require summer school for students who fail to meet the standards.

Of the 442 respondents who said they were aware of local standards initiatives, only 2 percent said schools should stop the standards programs, and 53 percent said they believe the efforts should continue without any changes. Thirty-four percent would like to see "some adjustments" to the initiatives. The remaining 11 percent said they didn't know enough about the programs to make a judgment.

Public Agenda's survey also sampled opinion in five cities—Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Los Angeles, and New York City—where school leaders have set aggressive policies barring the practice of social promotion of academically unready students, closing failing schools, and defining academic success according to specific standards.

The interviews with about 200 parents in each city yielded results that were similar to the national poll's.

"The breadth and depth of support is there," Ms. Wadsworth argued. "These numbers are not iffy."

In recent months, the Business Roundtable, the Association of American Publishers, and the American Association of School Administrators found similar results when they polled cross-sections of the public. (Test-Makers' Poll Finds Parents Value Testing," Aug 2, 2000.)

"What all of these polls show is that there is no widespread backlash against standards and testing, but the public has some concerns," said Susan L. Traiman, the director of education initiatives for the Business Roundtable, a Washington-based coalition of major corporations.

"Standards and accountability have a real intuitive appeal," said Lorraine M. McDonnell, a political science professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. "They make a lot of sense. The arguments against it are either too technical or they sound like excuses."

Testing: The Rub?

The AASA dug deeper and gauged the public's confidence in standardized tests as an appropriate tool for determining high-stakes decisions, such as whether a student will be advanced to the next grade or be allowed to graduate from high school.

"When you ask generic questions about standards and accountability, people tend to be supportive of it," said Paul D. Houston, the executive director of the administrators' group. "When we asked: 'Would you punish the individual child based on one measure,' that's when our numbers jumped out."

In the AASA poll, 63 percent of respondents said standardized tests were not an accurate way to measure a student's academic progress, and about half said students should not be held back because of a test score.

In the Public Agenda poll of parents, 53 percent of those responding said that students should pass a basic-skills test in reading, writing, and mathematics to earn a high school diploma. Another 27 percent said students should pass a "more challenging test" to receive their diplomas.

When the poll asked the question differently, support weakened. Sixty-one percent said they "strongly" agreed that "it's wrong to use the results of just one test to decide whether a student gets promoted or graduates." Another 17 percent said they "somewhat" agreed with the statement.

The results show that the public has some faith in test scores, but that they are skeptical of their ability to be the sole criteria for high-stakes decisions, Ms. Wadsworth said.

"I would describe what the public is saying as a test-plus policy, not a test-only policy," Ms. Traiman said.

Slippery Slope

A separate report released last week suggests that the more people learn about standardized tests, the less they like them.

The public supports the use of standardized tests as a "useful indicator of performance," but not as the measuring stick to judge whether students or schools are succeeding or failing, according to an analysis of public forums where members of the general public debated education issues.

In policymakers' minds, standards, testing, and accountability "are joined at the hip," said John Doble, who conducted the study for the National Issues Forums, a Dayton, Ohio-based network of community groups that holds the discussions throughout the country. For the public, "they're not the be-all and end-all. They're not even the main ones people want to use," he said.

The differing results from polls and community forums are a product of the different formats of the research, according to Mr. Doble, who operates his own research firm in Englewood Cliffs, N.J. In opinion polls, individuals don't ponder a policy's nuances and side effects, he said, but during in-depth discussions, they weigh the pros and cons before arriving at a decision.

That happens in the political arena as well. Virginia voters supported the state's Standards of Learning until they became the basis of multiple-choice tests that eventually will be used to determine school accreditation and high school graduation.

Objections to the state's standards are so strong that former Gov. George Allen, a Republican, is downplaying his role in their creation as he campaigns for the U.S. Senate, according to one Virginia political observer.

"It's a hot topic of discussion almost anywhere you go into a school," said John J. McGlennon, a professor of government at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va. When the principal mentioned the standards at his son's back-to-school night this fall, Mr. McGlennon said, it drew "spontaneous hissing" from parents.

One critic of the standards-and- testing movement said that parents often react once they see the impact the tests have on what is taught and the stress the tests put on their children.

"It seems to happen when their kids hit the grades where the stakes are very high, and it hits home to them," said Susan Ohanian, the author of the 1999 book One Size Fits Few. "It's when their kids come home crying that parents suddenly decide they have to do something."

But Ms. Wadsworth and Ms. Traiman say that such criticisms are unfair. States and districts are accommodating students' needs by offering them multiple chances to pass them, they note, and most districts offer extra help to struggling students.

In the Business Roundtable survey, Ms. Traiman said, after hearing about the extra help schools offered students taking the tests, half the objectors said they could support the programs.

In the Dark

While the parents polled by Public Agenda supported the concept of standards-based education, few knew they were living amid the changes.

Of the 803 parents surveyed nationally, just 55 percent said they knew about their local districts' attempts to raise academic standards. In Boston—where Superintendent Thomas W. Payzant has made standards the hallmark of his agenda since 1995—only 54 percent of respondents said they were aware of the efforts. (That subsample has a 7-percentage-point margin of error.)

"If I were an educator, I would be very concerned about the low level of knowledge," Ms. Wadsworth of Public Agenda said. "There's still a very significant job of public education to be done."

That lack of knowledge may be a sign of problems on the horizon, according to Ms. McDonnell.

"You can be supportive of an idea, and the question is: How much do you understand what the idea means?" the University of California political scientist said. "It could be soft when the consequences hit the kids."

Vol. 20, Issue 6, Pages 1,16-17

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