Standards and Testing, Yes, but What Else?

Parents, Students, Teachers and Administrators See Standards as Necessary but Not Enough; School Environment and Adequate Funding Are Bigger Priorities


New York City -- In a sign of the success - but also the limits - of the standards and testing movement in public education reform, new research released today by Public Agenda concludes that key elements of the public believe high standards and testing are necessary but not enough by themselves to lead to further progress.

In Reality Check 2006: Is Support for Standards and Testing Fading? (the third report issued this year in the Reality Check 2006 series), Public Agenda found that, five years into the implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act and over a dozen years into the so-called standards movement in American education, the public now sees these reforms as necessary, but not sufficient. This is consistent across a number of indicators among all groups surveyed by Public Agenda - parents, students, teachers and administrators.

Reality Check 2006 shows that relatively few parents, teachers, principals or superintendents see more of the same as the best course for the future. In this year's survey, respondents were asked to choose among four hypothetical candidates for the local school board - one running on a platform of standards and testing, a second backing vouchers, a third backing charter schools, and a fourth calling for more money for schools and smaller classes. Among parents, the standards and testing candidate comes in a distant second to a candidate backing smaller classes and more funding. Fewer than one in four parents picked the standards candidate out of the four options. Among the educators, support for a school board candidate focusing primarily on standards and testing is in the single digits.

Jean Johnson, Executive Director of Public Agenda's new initiative Education Insights and an author of the report said, It is important to remember that much of the public's initial support for raising standards grew out of anxiety over basics and the fear that too many youngsters were floating through the system without mastering even fundamental reading and math skills. But as promotion standards toughened, as graduation standards were raised, as parents began to see their own children doing harder work than they did when they were in school, the problem of 'low standards' began to lose its edge.

Falling Concern about Basics and Low Standards

In addition to the tepid support among parents for a school board candidate running mainly on standards and testing, other indicators in the Reality Check survey point to some changes in perceptions in this area. The percentage of parents who say low academic standards is a very serious problem in their child's school has dropped from 26% in 1994 to 15% now. The percentage of parents who say lack of emphasis on basics is a very serious problem at their child's school has dropped from more than a quarter (28%) in 1994 to one in five now (20%).

Historically, teachers have been among the most concerned about the standards movement, and the results here confirm their broad dissatisfaction with the amount of testing and how No Child Left Behind is affecting local schools - 70% of teachers say the law is causing problems in their district. But few teachers (19%) say standardized tests do more harm than good, and most (77%) say their district has been careful and reasonable in putting in place higher academic standards.

Like teachers and parents, most principals and superintendents see money, rather than low standards, as a priority. More than half of principals (52%) and 6 in 10 superintendents (60%) say that schools not getting enough money to do a good job is a very serious problem in their district, while just 4% of principals and 2% of superintendents see low academic standards as a very serious problem. Like parents and teachers, these school leaders would support a school board candidate focusing on funding and class size rather than one calling for more emphasis on standards and testing.

Living with No Child Left Behind

Relatively few principals (22%) and superintendents (9%) name the No Child Left Behind Act, the federal law requiring regular standardized testing, as the most pressing issue facing them, but fewer than half (42% of principals, 44% of superintendents) think the law will actually raise student achievement. Principals and superintendents are divided on the usefulness of breaking out test scores by race and for English-language learners, which the NCLB act requires. Still the vast majority of principals (97%) and superintendents (95%) say student data can be helpful for improving educational leadership.

The growing sense among the groups that standards and testing is not the be all and end all of improving public education is not a rejection of the idea itself, the Reality Check 2006 report concludes. Nor is it the much-feared backlash against testing. Neither parents nor students report significant concern about the number or kinds of tests youngsters currently take. The majority of teachers are troubled by testing, but even here, the main concern is the amount of testing, not its basic usefulness.

About Reality Check 2006

Reality Check 2006 is a set of public opinion tracking surveys on important issues in public education. From 1998 through 2002, Public Agenda conducted an annual survey of parents, teachers, students, employers and college professors covering standards, testing and accountability. In 2005 and 2006, Public Agenda revised and updated these surveys to cover a broader range of issues, including high school reform, school leadership, teacher preparation and quality, school funding and other issues. The tracking survey will be repeated periodically as a service of Public Agenda's Education Insights initiative.

Funding for Reality Check was provided by the GE Foundation, the Nellie Mae Education Foundation and The Wallace Foundation.

For the full report go to:


The findings in Reality Check 2006: Is Support for Standards and Testing Waning are based on two focus groups with parents and telephone interviews with a national random sample of 1,379 parents of children now in public school, 1,342 public school students in grades 6 through 12, 721 public school teachers, 254 school district superintendents and 252 school principals. Interviews with parents and were conducted between October 30 - December 18, 2005, interviews with students were conducted between October 30 - December 29, 2005 and interviews with teachers, principals and superintendents were conducted between November 19, 2005 - March 7, 2006. The margin of error for the sample of parents is plus or minus 3.8 percentage points; the margin of error for the sample of students is plus or minus 3.4 percentage points; the margin of error for the sample of teachers is plus or minus 4 percentage points and the margin of error for principals and superintendents is plus or minus 6 percentage points. It is higher when comparing percentages across subgroups. Full survey results can be found at

Public Agenda is a nonprofit organization dedicated to nonpartisan public policy research. Founded in 1975 by former U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and Daniel Yankelovich, the social scientist and author, Public Agenda is well respected for its influential public opinion surveys and balanced citizen education materials. Its mission is to inject the public's voice into crucial policy debates. Public Agenda seeks to inform leaders about the public's views and to engage citizens in discussing complex policy issues.

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