Tests Matter

Opinion by Nina Rees in USNews

09/14/15

Parents may condemn over-testing, but they know tests are essential to judging school performance.

As the mother of a tween living in the suburbs of Washington, I rarely tell people I meet what I do for a living because mentioning work in education leads to questions about my views on testing. The conventional wisdom is that students should be tested less frequently and that tests don't offer the full picture of a child's abilities. Mind you, these mothers are over-achievers whose children are often in gifted and talented classrooms, and somehow the SAT test and the prep work around it doesn't bother them. They don't have the same vitriolic response, perhaps because their children do well on these tests. 

This may explain why I found the results of this year's 47th annual PDK/Gallup poll on Americans' attitudes toward education particularly interesting. PDK and Gallup asked whether there's too much emphasis, not enough emphasis or the right amount of emphasis on standardized testing in public schools. Reflecting my experience, respondents overwhelmingly said there's too much emphasis – 64 percent – while 7 percent said there's not enough emphasis and 19 percent said the emphasis is about right.

[READ: Who's Out?]

But when PDK/Gallup breaks down the numbers by race, the dynamic shifts a bit. While 65 percent of white respondents said there's too much emphasis on testing, only 60 percent of Hispanic respondents and 57 percent of black respondents said the same. Blacks and Hispanics were also less likely than whites to say that parents should be allowed to opt their kids out of taking tests. (44 percent of whites support an opt out versus just 28 percent of blacks and 35 percent of Hispanics.) What accounts for these differing views on testing?

 

A big reason may be that black and Hispanic families are often stuck in districts with under-performing schools. Rather than accepting assurances from teachers, principals and local officials that things are getting better, they want to see the proof.

[READ: Making Classrooms Work]

A separate survey by Education Next, which generally supports reform initiatives, found much greater parental support for testing – close to 70 percent across all demographic groups. However, Education Next posed the question differently. Rather than ask about level of emphasis on testing, Education Next asked about actual testing policy, specifically: "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?"

Hearing that students are expected to take a test in reading and math each year sounded pretty reasonable to parents. And that may explain the gulf between the two polls' results. While PDK/Gallup captured the general zeitgeist that is opposed to over-testing, Education Next uncovered that parents are more inclined to support testing when they know what's actually involved.

[READ: 4 Lessons From the Opt Out Debate]

While the testing results captured most headlines – along with the public's lukewarm views on Common Core standards – there were other results worthy of attention. Public school choice was a big winner. PDK/Gallup found that 64 percent of respondents favor charter schools and just 25 percent oppose them – these results have held steady over the years. Charter schools had a net favorable response from Democrats, Republicans and independents – demonstrating that Americans like to be given options in the public realm.

As always, parents seem happy with their own children's schools, but they see a need for improvement nationally. Only 28 percent of parents in the Education Next poll gave U.S. schools a grade of A or B, and roughly 67 percent of respondents to the PDK/Gallup poll said no more than half of American students currently get a high-quality education. 

Bottom line: Parents know schools need to get better, and they want a say in choosing which school their child attends. And while they may not like how much testing is conducted at schools, they recognize the need for tests in core areas to show how schools are performing. These trends are especially true of parents who, for too long, have watched their students struggle in bad schools. 

Testing may not be fun, but I've never walked into a great school that had poor test scores. 

Nina Rees is the president and chief executive officer of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. Rees has more than 20 years of experience in Washington, D.C., including at Knowledge Universe, the U.S. Department of Education and working as a deputy assistant for domestic policy to Vice President Dick Cheney. 

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