PDK International has been polling on the subject of education for decades, releasing annual reports that generate a lot of media coverage and drive public perception. This year, however, PDK put a little too much spin on the findings. Case in point: testing. The
report on PDK’s 2017 poll claims, “The public offers little support for standardized testing in contrast to the deep interest in testing by policy makers over the last two decades.” In fact, the poll found that 58 percent of the public is “more confident” that “standardized tests do a good job measuring how well your child is learning,” versus 39 percent who are “less confident.” PDK reported this finding as “fewer than 6 in 10,” and framed it as “the public’s substantial skepticism toward standardized testing.” Separately, 42 percent of the public says standardized tests are a “highly important indicator of school quality.” However, in a classic apples-to-broccoli comparison, the report points out that more parents rate other factors—like arts, extra curriculars and AP classes—as more important. No surprise that actual learning activities for kids outpoll testing. PDK CEO Josh Starr, who worked for Joel Klein in New York City before running a large school system in Maryland, opened the report with an essay asserting that the poll “showed a wide gap between what the most strident policy makers and reformers are advocating and what the American public actually wants and believes.” If you focus only on the “most strident” that may be true but most education reformers don’t fit in that category. Generally, education reformers believe parents ought to have more say in where their kids go to school and that the system ought to be accountable for results. And, according to the poll, 66 percent of parents agree that “schools should be held accountable for these test results.” The report also concludes that “prominent ideas that dominate current policy debates—from supporting vouchers to doubling down on high-stakes testing to cutting federal education funding—are out of step with parents’ main concerns.” There is a lot wrong with this statement. First of all, while vouchers are a policy priority for some on the right, the fact is vouchers (or tax credits) educate less than 1 percent of the nation’s school-age students. In most states and districts, the focus is on district schools, charter schools, accountability and funding, along with issues like discipline and personalized learning. Interestingly, the poll did not ask about charter schools. Second, no one is calling for “doubling down on high-stakes testing.” Most of us want as few tests as possible, but enough to track whether students are meeting standards and how much they are gaining each year. I defy PDK to find anyone advocating for more testing. Finally, it is hard to argue there are “high stakes” under the current education law. Few schools are closed for low performance and few teachers are disciplined. While some states base student retention on third-grade reading scores, the number held back is very low. Moreover, most new accountability plans submitted by states are vague on how they will intervene in chronically low-performing schools. Even under No Child Left Behind, which was the federal education law from 2002-2015, most interventions were modest and ineffective, despite billions of dollars in incentives. One other finding from the poll is that opposition to standardized testing is highest among higher-income, left-leaning Whites, who make up a relatively small share of public school parents. Non-Whites, who now make up a majority of students, along with those with household incomes below $50,000, also a majority of students, are “more apt to rate standardized tests as an important marker of school quality.” From the dawn of public polling, survey data has been used to drive a political agenda or outcome, but in public policy debates, the findings are most useful when presented unvarnished. PDK should release the raw data and let people draw their own conclusions. It is simply false to say that parents don’t support testing. The truth is much simpler: Parents understand why standardized tests are needed and, in their wisdom, they keep them in perspective.
Peter Cunningham is the founder of Education Post and serves on its board. He served as Assistant Secretary for communications and outreach in the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama administration’s first term. Prior to that he worked with Arne Duncan when he was CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. Peter is affiliated with