Polls: Public Rejects NCLB Test and Punish Approach

K-12 Testing

Recent national and state surveys indicate that the public now believes there is too much emphasis on high-stakes testing, particularly as mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law. "The public rejects the punitive approach found in NCLB, favors a broad curriculum, prefers more appropriate measures of school performance than a single high-stakes test," concluded William Bushaw, co-director of the Phi Delta Kappa annual national education survey. A statewide Texas poll found that 56% of respondents believe there is too much focus on testing, while an Ohio survey reported that 57% of those polled believe tests are not accurate indicators of students' progress and 55% think there is too much emphasis on testing. Similarly, a Florida study found that 59% oppose continuing to use the state FCAT test to "grade public schools, give financial rewards to the best performing schools and determine if students get promoted or graduate," with 78% of African Americans holding that position.


The results of the latest Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll link are "a wake-up call to our nation's policy makers as they begin the process of reauthorizing NCLB in 2007," according to Bushaw, executive director of PDK International. His conclusion parallels the views of the more than 90 organizations that have signed the Joint Organizational Statement on NCLB, which outlines the basis for an overhaul of the federal law. Many previous surveys have found that ever growing portions of the public reject the high-stakes testing programs being peddled by many politicians and corporate leaders (see Examiner, Summer 2005).


This year's Kappa survey found stronger opposition to NCLB than did last year's poll, especially among those who report knowing more about the law. Referring to the poll, a headline in the September issue of ESchool News portrayed a disconnect between pro-NCLB politicians and the public on the law: "Bush Administration: 'Not Much Needed in the Way of Change;' Only Three in 10 Americans Agree."


The sorts of sanctions promoted by NCLB, such as allowing a few students to transfer to other schools, are rejected by large majorities, who fear the growing consequences of teaching to the test. At the same time, strong majorities see schools as essential in overcoming social inequalities, even while recognizing that "societal problems" are more at fault for problems facing public education than is the performance of schools. And most believe that local school boards should have the predominant say in what is taught in local schools, implicitly rejecting the back-door approach to federal control of curriculum and instruction being engineered through NCLB.


Survey Details

Respondents also share a growing concern about the harmful consequences of high-stakes testing. For example, 67% agree that "the current emphasis on standardized tests encourages teachers to 'teach to the tests.'" Of those, 75% view this result as "a bad thing." That is, half the public believes teaching to the test is happening and is wrong.


The more people profess to know more about NCLB, the more they express dissatisfaction with the law and reject its fundamental structures:


* Only 12% of those who claimed familiarity with NCLB had a "very favorable" opinion of the law, while 23% had a "very unfavorable" opinion. Of this group, 68% said it was either hurting or not helping their local schools. Among all survey participants, favorable and unfavorable responses to NCLB were evenly divided - suggesting that informing more people about the law is an important strategy for those who seek its overhaul.


* 69% of all those polled agree that use of "a single test" would not "provide a fair picture of whether a school needs improvement."


* 78% expressed concern that NCLB-mandated testing will "mean less emphasis on art, music, history, and other subjects."


* NCLB requires districts to allow students at low-scoring schools to move to other schools. But by a margin of 80% to 17%, respondents preferred improving the local school to transfers (a finding mirrored in the Ohio survey). This perspective appears from other evidence to be widely shared in the low-income communities that supposedly will benefit from moving students around.


* 80% support measuring school performance by evaluating "the improvement students in the school make during the year" rather than "the percentage of students passing the test" as NCLB requires.


* The Ohio survey, by the KnowledgeWords Foundation, found that 89% of respondents believe it should be a high priority for Ohio schools to teach "critical thinking and problem solving skills." Such abilities are not effectively assessed by standardized tests.


* The Florida poll explained the high stakes for students and schools, then asked, "Do you favor or oppose continuing to use the FCAT [state test] this way?" 59% of all respondents, 64% of women, 79% of blacks, and 65% of Hispanics said they opposed such uses of the state exam.


Overall, the survey results add more evidence that for the most part the public supports FairTest's assessment reform positions. There are some issues on which this is not the case, however:


* A majority of respondents, despite thinking that it is unfair to judge schools just on tests, is willing to deny diplomas to kids who don't pass tests. This may be in part a question of wording. Some evidence suggests that if the question is rephrased as, "Should a student who does well in school be denied a diploma solely because s/he did not pass a state test?" half the respondents disagree. However, this finding, coupled with the facts that half the states, with 70% of the students, have exit tests, suggests that reformers need to think harder about how to frame our arguments and battle for policy changes.


* The public by a modest margin opposes breaking test scores out by demographic groups. While the scores should not be used for high-stakes purposes, FairTest believes that evidence of student learning should be reported by groups.


* 62% of respondents think that scores of special education students should not be included in measuring schools under NCLB. Disability rights advocates have long argued for inclusion in assessment and reporting of results. FairTest agrees with inclusion, but believes that standardized tests must be largely replaced with high-quality performance assessments that can be adapted to local, cultural, and individual needs.