Public Supports Testing, Opposes Opt-Out, Opposes Federal Intervention

By and 07/28/2015

9 Comments | Print | NO PDF |

Testing and accountability have become a focal point of the congressional debate over the new federal education bill designed to replace No Child Left Behind (NCLB), originally scheduled to expire in 2007.   The Senate and the House have each passed a bill revising the law, but disagreement persists on a key testing provision.  The Senate bill, passed by a bipartisan supermajority of 81-17, continues the current requirement that states test students each year in grades 3 through 8 and again in high school, but the House bill, passed along strict party lines, allows parents to “opt out” of state tests, despite the fact that the federal government does not require that the tests be used to evaluate the performance of individual students.  The difference is critical because one cannot assess school performance accurately unless nearly all (or a representative sample of) students participate in the testing process.

Even if the two houses of Congress reach agreement, another issue complicates the enactment of a new education law.  The Obama Administration, backed by civil rights groups, has threatened to veto the legislation unless it gives the federal government a say in defining what constitutes a failing school and in proposing remedies, something not provided for in the current bills.

Given the timeliness of the testing controversy,  we are releasing now (prior to the release of our full results in August) relevant information on public opinion obtained as part of the ninth annual Education Next survey administered in May and June, 2015.   In that survey we asked nationally representative samples of 700 teachers and 3,300 adult members of the general public the following question:  Do you support or oppose the federal government continuing to require that all students be tested in math and reading each year in grades 3-8 and once in high school?

No less than 67% of the public said they supported required annual testing, while just 21% opposed the idea, with the remainder taking a neutral position.  Parental support (66%) was nearly as high as that for the public as a whole.  Teachers were divided down the middle, with 47% favoring testing but 46% expressing opposition.

To obtain reactions to “opting out” proposals, we also asked: Some people say that ALL students should take state tests in math and reading.  Others say that parents should decide whether or not their children take these tests. Do you support or oppose letting parents decide whether to have their children take state math and reading tests? 

We found little public sympathy for the “opt-out” point of view.  Only 25% of the public like the idea, while 59% oppose it, the remainder taking a neutral position.  Among parents themselves, just 32% favored the opt-out approach, while 52% opposed it.  Fifty-seven percent of the teachers also reacted negatively to the idea, with only 32% lending it support.  Clearly, the public favors the Senate education bill’s approach to this issue over that of the bill that passed the House.

On the matter of federal intervention, we asked: What level of government should play the biggest role in deciding whether or not a school is failing? Responses were as follows:

Federal government: 18%
State Government: 50%
Local government: 32%

Despite the support of civil rights groups for the Obama Administration’s insistence that low-performing schools be identified, the responses of the representative sample of several hundred black Americans we surveyed were similar to those of the public as a whole; only 23% thought the feds should decide this issue. In other words, there is no apparent sympathy among either the public or the African American community for the Obama Administration’s position on the identification of and intervention in failing schools.

In short, the public supports federally required annual testing and opposes those who would give families the right to “opt out” of the requirement.  And were the president to veto a bill passed by Congress on the grounds that it provided insufficient federal oversight of state accountability programs, explaining his decision to the public would be an uphill battle. If those in our nation’s capital want to modify federal education policy along lines preferred by the public at large, they will enact a law that resembles the bipartisan bill passed by the Senate.

– Paul E. Peterson and Martin R. West

Comment on this article
  • Bruce William Smith says:

    If the Senate bill continues with NCLB’s requirement that 95% of a school’s pupils be tested for its results to count, and one fifth (the approximate proportion of the most recalcitrant families, according to your polling — and their numbers have been rising) refuse the tests, what does the federal government propose to do about that? Why didn’t you ask your survey-takers what punishment they propose be meted out to their non-like-minded neighbours? A significant minority can render this law unenforceable, regardless of majority opinion, and can undermine the viability of the state schools systems’ finances by opting out of those systems altogether, choosing instead voucher- and tax credit-supported private schools that aren’t subject to the federal testing mandate, if they follow the examples of Secretary Duncan, Mr. and Mrs. Gates, and numerous other well-informed families that oppose test-obsessed schooling for their own children.

  • Eric Brown says:

    Wow, you come to some pretty bold conclusions given the few questions used in your survey. Asking people about annual assessments without providing a follow-up question about grade span assessments as an alternative is why you can come to your conclusion that the “public supports federally required annual testing.” For many of your respondents the alternative they may be thinking of is NO assessment whatsoever.

    Even your question about the level of government that should play the biggest role in helping schools succeed is poorly worded or intentionally negative…you tell me. And your claim that “one cannot assess school performance accurately unless…students participate in the testing process,” assumes that school success can only be determined by testing, which is incorrect.

    School success can be determined by looking at a host of indicators including the resources provided to students in order to achieve success, the breadth of coursework to motivate and inspire students, the attendance and graduation rate, and the support services available to students struggling socially or emotionally.

    In short, another missed opportunity to really dig deep on the issues that Americans believe are truly helpful to ensure student and school success. By the way, I agree the Senate Bill is much more preferable to the House Bill. We all hope they can work something better out in conference to #getESEAright!

  • Ken Mortland says:

    This report makes no mention of public opinion on how those test scores may be used. Some questions come to mind:
    1] Did you poll voters opinions on using student test scores to evaluate teachers?
    2] If so, what were the results?
    3] Did you poll voters opinions on whether or not they approved of continued testing, if those scores were used to evaluate teachers?
    4] Did you provide voters with information on the costs of repeated student testing and then poll their opinions based on that new knowledge?
    5] Did you proved voters with information on the “validity” issues surrounding these tests and then poll their opinions based upon that new knowledge?

  • Roger A. Webb says:

    No Child Left Behind has been a disaster from its inception because the people who wrote it uncritically assumed the validity of achievement tests. Worse, I suspect at least some of the instigators intended to give the public schools impossible tasks so they could hold schools and teachers up as failures when they did not achieve those unattainable goals.

    The two major goals of NCLB were to eliminate racial differences in scores and to have everyone performing at grade level in math and reading.

    There is a consistent difference of about one standard deviation between the scores of black and white students on aptitude (e.g. SAT and ACT) and achievement tests. Maybe someday things will change in our society and that difference will go away, but there is no reason to think it will happen any time soon.

    Since grade standards are ultimately defined by the performance of average students at each grade level, the second goal is literally a joke: We want to have everyone perform above average when half the population is always below average by definition.

    We can see the results of holding people accountable for unattainable goals: educators in Atlanta are going to prison, and now, a principal in New York has apparently committed suicide, when caught altering student tests. Those are the exceptions who got caught.

    We must stop using individual students’ scores to evaluate education. Test scores tell us who tests well, and average scores by school tell us primarily the ethnic and economic make ups of the student bodies. There is little left over to assess teaching and learning after you account for those two factors. Instead, score tests by how many kids of various levels of ability get various items right. That’s what you really want to know: how well are students mastering the material in the curriculum.

    In the meantime, kill NCLB.

  • H. Chandler says:

    Sorry, no one asked me if I support high-stakes testing and the enabling legislation that facilitates/mandates it. As a professional educator and parent, I encourage others to “opt out” and make their voices heard regarding what they perceive to be in the best interests of their children and students. Polls showing the majority of people are likely to be given on woefully uninformed participants, or are not a sufficient sample size to be meaningful?

  • Lisa says:

    Arne Duncan must find the opt out movement agreeable, because he has “opted out” his children. So has Bill Gates. And President Obama. None of their children are in public education, and the schools that they attend are not held to any federal or state accountability standard that I am aware of. Their children do not endure the standardized testing that children in public school face. Their children are in schools that are well resourced and free to provide a meaningful education free from the crap that they’ve saddled the rest of us with.

    The uninformed public, which of COURSE wants to ensure that their children are receiving quality education, believe that testing is the best way to determine a quality education. Maybe it’s time to educate them as to what the tests really measure and show.

    Perhaps you should start your survey question with more perspective and see what data you collect.

    “Are you aware that standardized test scores more accurately indicate the income level of the child’s home and have not been shown to consistently measure the quality of a child’s education? Given this information, do you support or oppose the federal government continuing to require that all students be tested in math and reading each year in grades 3-8 and once in high school as a way to identify schools that are underperforming?”

    Further, “Are you aware that the top education officials in the United States do not send their children to schools that are affected by the policies that they create? They have, effectively, opted out of standardized testing and opted out of the public school system. With this knowledge, do you support or oppose letting parents like yourself decide whether to have their children take state math and reading tests?”

    Finally, “Are you aware that using test scores to identify ‘underperforming schools’ does NOT result in more financial resources to that particular school, but has consistently resulted in community schools being closed down and reopened as charters with LESS accountability?”

    Our education system is broken. So broken that the people who are running it have opted out of it for their own children. Time to educate the masses and insist on schools that are as well resourced and free of the intrusion of standardized testing as the schools that the Duncan children attend.

  • Duane Swacker says:

    Once the public realizes the complete epistemological and ontological invalidity of educational standards and standardized testing the Opt Out movement will overwhelm the data munchers. To understand that invalidity read and comprehend Noel Wilson’s never refuted nor rebutted treatise on those malpractices found at:“Educational Standards and the Problem of Error” found at:

    Brief outline of Wilson’s “Educational Standards and the Problem of Error” and some comments of mine.

    1. A description of a quality can only be partially quantified. Quantity is almost always a very small aspect of quality. It is illogical to judge/assess a whole category only by a part of the whole. The assessment is, by definition, lacking in the sense that “assessments are always of multidimensional qualities. To quantify them as unidimensional quantities (numbers or grades) is to perpetuate a fundamental logical error” (per Wilson). The teaching and learning process falls in the logical realm of aesthetics/qualities of human interactions. In attempting to quantify educational standards and standardized testing the descriptive information about said interactions is inadequate, insufficient and inferior to the point of invalidity and unacceptability.

    2. A major epistemological mistake is that we attach, with great importance, the “score” of the student, not only onto the student but also, by extension, the teacher, school and district. Any description of a testing event is only a description of an interaction, that of the student and the testing device at a given time and place. The only correct logical thing that we can attempt to do is to describe that interaction (how accurately or not is a whole other story). That description cannot, by logical thought, be “assigned/attached” to the student as it cannot be a description of the student but the interaction. And this error is probably one of the most egregious “errors” that occur with standardized testing (and even the “grading” of students by a teacher).

    3. Wilson identifies four “frames of reference” each with distinct assumptions (epistemological basis) about the assessment process from which the “assessor” views the interactions of the teaching and learning process: the Judge (think college professor who “knows” the students capabilities and grades them accordingly), the General Frame-think standardized testing that claims to have a “scientific” basis, the Specific Frame-think of learning by objective like computer based learning, getting a correct answer before moving on to the next screen, and the Responsive Frame-think of an apprenticeship in a trade or a medical residency program where the learner interacts with the “teacher” with constant feedback. Each category has its own sources of error and more error in the process is caused when the assessor confuses and conflates the categories.

    4. Wilson elucidates the notion of “error”: “Error is predicated on a notion of perfection; to allocate error is to imply what is without error; to know error it is necessary to determine what is true. And what is true is determined by what we define as true, theoretically by the assumptions of our epistemology, practically by the events and non-events, the discourses and silences, the world of surfaces and their interactions and interpretations; in short, the practices that permeate the field. . . Error is the uncertainty dimension of the statement; error is the band within which chaos reigns, in which anything can happen. Error comprises all of those eventful circumstances which make the assessment statement less than perfectly precise, the measure less than perfectly accurate, the rank order less than perfectly stable, the standard and its measurement less than absolute, and the communication of its truth less than impeccable.”

    In other word all the logical errors involved in the process render any conclusions invalid.

    5. The test makers/psychometricians, through all sorts of mathematical machinations attempt to “prove” that these tests (based on standards) are valid-errorless or supposedly at least with minimal error [they aren’t]. Wilson turns the concept of validity on its head and focuses on just how invalid the machinations and the test and results are. He is an advocate for the test taker not the test maker. In doing so he identifies thirteen sources of “error”, any one of which renders the test making/giving/disseminating of results invalid. And a basic logical premise is that once something is shown to be invalid it is just that, invalid, and no amount of “fudging” by the psychometricians/test makers can alleviate that invalidity.

    6. Having shown the invalidity, and therefore the unreliability, of the whole process Wilson concludes, rightly so, that any result/information gleaned from the process is “vain and illusory”. In other words start with an invalidity, end with an invalidity (except by sheer chance every once in a while, like a blind and anosmic squirrel who finds the occasional acorn, a result may be “true”) or to put in more mundane terms crap in-crap out.

    7. And so what does this all mean? I’ll let Wilson have the second to last word: “So what does a test measure in our world? It measures what the person with the power to pay for the test says it measures. And the person who sets the test will name the test what the person who pays for the test wants the test to be named.”

    In other words it attempts to measure “’something’ and we can specify some of the ‘errors’ in that ‘something’ but still don’t know [precisely] what the ‘something’ is.” The whole process harms many students as the social rewards for some are not available to others who “don’t make the grade (sic)” Should American public education have the function of sorting and separating students so that some may receive greater benefits than others, especially considering that the sorting and separating devices, educational standards and standardized testing, are so flawed not only in concept but in execution?

    My answer is NO!!!!!

    One final note with Wilson channeling Foucault and his concept of subjectivization:

    “So the mark [grade/test score] becomes part of the story about yourself and with sufficient repetitions becomes true: true because those who know, those in authority, say it is true; true because the society in which you live legitimates this authority; true because your cultural habitus makes it difficult for you to perceive, conceive and integrate those aspects of your experience that contradict the story; true because in acting out your story, which now includes the mark and its meaning, the social truth that created it is confirmed; true because if your mark is high you are consistently rewarded, so that your voice becomes a voice of authority in the power-knowledge discourses that reproduce the structure that helped to produce you; true because if your mark is low your voice becomes muted and confirms your lower position in the social hierarchy; true finally because that success or failure confirms that mark that implicitly predicted the now self-evident consequences. And so the circle is complete.”

    In other words students “internalize” what those “marks” (grades/test scores) mean, and since the vast majority of the students have not developed the mental skills to counteract what the “authorities” say, they accept as “natural and normal” that “story/description” of them.

    Although paradoxical in a sense, the “I’m an “A” student” is almost as harmful as “I’m an ‘F’ student” in hindering students becoming independent, critical and free thinkers. And having independent, critical and free thinkers is a threat to the current socio-economic structure of society.

  • Informed parent says:

    My kids. My decision. As informed parents, we are opting out. We refuse to let our children be pawns in this grown-up, money-making testing game.

    Not surprisingly, the sponsors and donors for Education Next are the same corporations and foundations that benefit financially from my children slaving over standardized tests.

    Not with my kids. Not with mine.

  • Sandy Stenoff says:

    Depends on who you ask, I suppose.

    This is an update. A real one.

    “Tuesday, April 26, 2016

    Parental opposition to standardized testing in schools remains high, even as the latest cycle of tests is beginning in many states. Most parents now say there’s no need for any such tests at all.

    A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that 64% of American Adults with children of elementary or secondary school age believe there is too much emphasis on standardized tests in schools these days. That’s little changed from December but up from 57% in November 2013 when we first asked this question.

    Just 18% of these parents think there is not enough emphasis on standardized tests, a finding that hasn’t changed over the years, while 12% rate the balance as about right. (To see survey question wording, click here.)

    The survey of 1,000 American Adults was conducted on April 21 and 24, 2016 by Rasmussen Reports. The margin of sampling error is +/- 3 percentage points with a 95% level of confidence. Field work for all Rasmussen Reports surveys is conducted by Pulse Opinion Research, LLC. See methodology.”

  • Comment on this Article

    Name ()


    Sponsored Results

    The Hoover Institution at Stanford University - Ideas Defining a Free Society

    Harvard Kennedy School Program on Educational Policy and Governance

    Thomas Fordham Institute - Advancing Educational Excellence and Education Reform