Where's the Backlash? Students Say They Don't Fret Standardized Tests

Most teachers, students agree that test preparation has not interfered with classroom learning


NEW YORK -- Standardized testing may have touched off a firestorm over public education, but students aren't feeling the heat - 95 percent say they either can deal with the stress or don't worry at all about taking the tests. And most teachers and students say preparing for standardized tests has not detracted from learning in their classrooms.

The results are contained in the fifth annual Reality Check study, a joint project by Public Agenda and Education Week to track the nation's progress in raising academic standards in the public schools. The study was funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts and the GE Fund and conducted by Public Agenda, a nonprofit organization dedicated to nonpartisan public opinion research.

Large majorities of parents, teachers, employers and college professors who are aware that their local school districts are raising standards credit their districts with being careful and reasonable in the effort. But the groups surveyed also share some of the concerns raised by critics regarding the emphasis placed on testing.

For the fifth year in a row, the survey generated troubling data from employers and college professors regarding the basic skills proficiency of high school grads.

The drive to raise academic standards in public schools enjoys wide bipartisan support and all 50 states now employ testing to some degree. Enacted earlier this year, President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act will require annual testing across all states in reading and math for grades 3 through 8 by the 2005-06 school year.

The standards movement continues to attract widespread support among teachers and parents, and public school students nationwide appear to be adjusting comfortably to the new status quo, said Deborah Wadsworth, Public Agenda's president. Reports of problems that have arisen in some districts with efforts to raise standards and with testing certainly demand our attention, but they should not obscure the impressive support for moving ahead with the standards movement.

Making the Adjustment

In its surveys of 600 middle and high school students nationally, Public Agenda found large majorities were taking higher standards and increased testing in stride.

  • Nearly three quarters of the students (73 percent) said they can handle the pressure of taking standardized tests, while 23 percent don't get nervous at all. Only five percent said they feel so nervous they can't take the test.
  • Virtually all students say they take the tests seriously and more than half (56 percent) say they take them very seriously.
  • Eight of 10 students say their teachers use class time to prepare students for the tests, but nearly the same number (78 percent) say the effort does not come at the expense of neglecting other classwork.
  • Eight in 10 students (82 percent) say academic expectations in their schools are about right, and 71 percent say the amount of homework they are assigned, as well as the number of tests they have to take, are about right.

Committed, But Wary

Among the adults surveyed, support for the standards movement was solid and testing was found to be useful in a variety of circumstances. But a number of concerns raised by critics also registered with parents, teachers, employers and college professors.

There clearly is a strong endorsement for testing, but by no means are the groups we surveyed willing to give their school districts a green light to use the tests whenever and however they please, said Wadsworth. All are cognizant of the downsides of too much testing and many share the concerns raised by critics. But it is also important to note that the testing policies people fear most, such as basing graduation on the results of one test, appear to occur only rarely in the schoolhouse.

Support for turning back the clock and stopping the standards movement in their local school district is virtually nonexistent among parents (2 percent), teachers (1 percent), employers (2 percent) and college professors (1 percent) familiar with efforts underway locally. Virtually all others said their schools should either continue the effort or continue it with some modification.

Very large majorities among each group see the tests as a motivational tool, prompting students to work harder when they know they have to pass a test to graduate or progress with their education. Majorities of teachers (62 percent), employers (79 percent) and professors (78 percent) believe standardized-test scores are an effective tool to identify students in need of tutoring or summer school.

Most parents and teachers agree that students take the right number of tests, that testing younger students is a good way to target early on those in need of help, and that high school exit exams are a good idea. Only 12 percent of parents and 20 percent of teachers think it's a bad idea to require high school students to take an exit exam in order to receive their diploma.

But, agreeing with critics, large numbers of teachers (84 percent), parents (60 percent), employers (52 percent) and college professors (57 percent) say far too much emphasis is placed on test scores. A sizeable number of students (45 percent) agree.

Concerns that test preparation could take away from classroom learning were shared by majorities of teachers (79 percent), parents (66 percent), employers (64 percent) and professors (79 percent). And, large majorities of all groups agree that it would be wrong to use the results of one test to determine whether a student should graduate or move up a grade; rather, schools should utilize both test scores and teacher evaluations, they said.

Significantly, teachers in the surveys report these dangers in practice have yet to manifest themselves broadly in their schools. Nearly three quarters of teachers (73 percent) say they have not neglected regular teaching duties for test preparation; 26 percent said that has happened in their classrooms. A bare three percent say students in their schools are promoted solely on the basis of standardized-test scores; 56 percent of teachers say the scores are not even factored in.

Now the Bad News

Since the Reality Check surveys began in 1998, employers and college professors have gradually given public schools more credit in raising academic standards and overall performance. But the students coming out of those schools continue to disappoint in their writing, grammar and basic math skills.

Despite some glimmers of hope, the high level of dissatisfaction among employers and professors -- who are in many ways the ultimate 'consumers' of K-12 education -- are disheartening, said Wadsworth. And high school teachers, according to another study we just completed, seem to agree: just 20 percent said that students in their schools typically 'learn to speak and write well, with proper pronunciation and grammar.'

For the fifth year in a row, employers who hire young people out of school and college professors who teach freshmen and sophomores said the high school graduates they encounter had just fair or poor skills in:

  • Grammar and spelling (73 percent of employers and 74 percent of college professors);
  • The ability to write clearly (73 percent of employers, 75 percent of professors);
  • Basic math (63 percent of employers; 65 percent of professors)

Employers and professors also were not impressed with the attitudes high school graduates bring to the job or the college campus.

  • Young people were given fair or poor ratings for work habits, such as being organized and on time by 69 percent of employers and 74 percent of professors;
  • Students also were given low marks for being motivated and conscientious by 72 percent of employers and 58 percent of professors.

Just 16 percent of employers and 24 percent of professors said they have noticed an improvement in the quality of high school students coming to them over recent years, figures virtually unchanged since 1998. Only 39 percent of employers and 31 percent of professors say they regard a high school diploma as evidence a student has mastered the basics.

On the bright side, 70 percent of employers and 81 percent of college professors say high school graduates have good or excellent computer skills.

Signs of Hope

While unhappy with the quality of high school graduates in many areas, employers and, even more so, college professors, are seeing improvement with public schools.

Since 1998, those who say public schools expect students to learn too little has dropped from 66 percent to 47 percent among professors, and from 55 percent to 48 percent among employers. Only 31 percent of both employers and professors in 1998 said schools were doing an excellent or good job; in 2002, the percentages grew to 42 percent of employers and 39 percent of professors.

Reality Check 2002 was prepared by Jean Johnson and Ann Duffett. Last month, Public Agenda released a related survey on the views of high school teachers, parents and students comparing the relative academic performance and social environment of large versus small high schools. Copies of the full text of both surveys can be accessed free of charge from Public Agenda's Web site ( The site also includes a companion guide with statistics, charts and other information from Reality Check 2002.

Methodology: Reality Check 2002 was based on telephone interviews conducted Nov. 9 through Dec. 9, 2001 with national, randomly selected samples of:

  • 600 K-12 public school teachers, 610 parents of public school students in grades K-12,
  • 600 public school students in middle or high school,
  • 251 employers who hire workers recently out of high school or college,
  • 252 professors in two- and four-year colleges who teach freshmen and sophomores.

The margin of error for teachers, parents and students is plus or minus four percentage points; for employers and professors, plus or minus six percentage points.

Public Agenda, based in New York City, 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 polls and balanced citizen education materials. Its mission is to inform leaders about the public's views and to educate citizens about government policy.

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