School & District Management

ETS Poll Finds Support for Changes to High Schools

June 21, 2005 4 min read

Most Americans believe that high school students aren’t being significantly challenged by their studies, a national poll scheduled for release this week concludes.

More information on “Ready for the Real World? Americans Speak on High School Reform” is posted by the Educational Testing Service.

The survey by the Educational Testing Service found that only 9 percent of the general public believes that high schools set high academic expectations for students. Almost a third said students aren’t challenged at all, while more than half believe that students are “somewhat” challenged.

The study, “Ready for the Real World? Americans Speak on High School Reform,” polled 2,250 adults, including 371 parents of high school students and a total of 666 parents of K-12 students. In addition, the ETS separately surveyed 300 high school administrators and 300 high school teachers.

The survey, set for release June 22, found that 5 percent of the general public and 9 percent of the high school teachers surveyed believe high schools are working “very” or “pretty” well, while 30 percent of the general public polled believe that major changes are needed. A majority of those polled support a variety of measures to improve high schools, including making sure teachers are experts in the subjects they teach, requiring exit exams, and increasing taxes to raise teachers’ salaries

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Table: Awareness of Federal Law

Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart and Republican pollster David Winston conducted the telephone survey for the ETS in April. The poll has a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points among the general public; 3.8 for parents of K-12 students; 5.1 for parents of high school students; and 5.66 for high school teachers.

The survey is the fifth annual poll of Americans’ attitudes toward public education sponsored by the ETS, the nonprofit educational testing and research organization in Princeton, N.J., that produces the SAT and other admissions and professional exams.

Allan Rivlin, a lead researcher for the survey, said the findings show that many Americans believe high school students should face high expectations regardless of whether they plan to attend college. Americans want high schools to make sure that students are prepared for “whatever life throws at them,” he said.

High Expectations

The survey comes as a number of states are placing new academic demands on high school students. (“States Raise Bar for High School Diploma,” this issue.)

The poll also found that the public’s awareness of the federal No Child Left Behind Act has almost doubled, from 31 percent saying they had heard either a “great deal” or a “fair amount” about the law in 2001 to 61 percent this year. And although a growing percentage of Americans have a favorable view of the 3-year-old law, an overwhelming majority of high school teachers polled hold unfavorable opinions about it.

Almost half of the general public, or 42 percent, support applying the law’s strategies to raise standards and increase accountability at the high school level. A majority of the high school teachers polled oppose such a move.

Mr. Rivlin, who also is a senior vice president for Hart Research in Washington, noted that the public is still divided about the No Child Left Behind Act. Although more Americans appear to be in favor of the law, he said, significant opposition remains, and many people continue to be unaware of what the legislation means.

Society Faulted

Indeed, 64 percent of the members of the general public and 88 percent of the teachers surveyed believe that “the broader society” is the chief cause of problems facing high schools. The public also points to the scarcity of resources, lack of student preparedness, and low academic standards.

Most parents polled said that a high school education should prepare students to continue their educations in college, technical, or a trade school.

Parents, teachers, and administrators favor a comprehensive and rigorous academic foundation that all students should complete in high school. Ninety-five percent of the members of the general public surveyed support at least one year of computer science, 85 percent favor four years of English, and 81 percent three years of history and civics. Seventy-three percent back four years of mathematics, and 69 percent support three years of science.

Yet, 64 percent of the general public, and 70 percent of teachers, support placing a greater emphasis on “real-world learning” by encouraging student participation in work-study programs, community service, and vocational courses to improve high schools.

In addition, 57 percent of the general public and 64 percent of the teachers surveyed believe that seniors should be allowed to spend less time in class if they qualify to take part in work-study and job-training programs, or if they enroll in college classes.

Naomi G. Housman, the director of the National High School Alliance at the Institute for Educational Leadership in Washington, said the poll’s findings indicate that Americans would like to see high schools be more flexible in how they educate students.

“We’re looking at helping every student reach their maximum potential in a way that is going to work for [each] student,” she said, adding that she sees a growing awareness that all students need rigorous coursework and hands-on learning experiences to be successful in college and at work.

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