Public Supports Testing, Opposes Opt-Out, Opposes Federal Intervention

Testing and accountability have become a focal point of the congressional debate over the new federal education bill designed to replace No Child Left Behind (NCLB), originally scheduled to expire in 2007.   The Senate and the House have each passed a bill revising the law, but disagreement persists on a key testing provision.  The Senate bill, passed by a bipartisan supermajority of 81-17, continues the current requirement that states test students each year in grades 3 through 8 and again in high school, but the House bill, passed along strict party lines, allows parents to “opt out” of state tests, despite the fact that the federal government does not require that the tests be used to evaluate the performance of individual students.  The difference is critical because one cannot assess school performance accurately unless nearly all (or a representative sample of) students participate in the testing process.

Even if the two houses of Congress reach agreement, another issue complicates the enactment of a new education law.  The Obama Administration, backed by civil rights groups, has threatened to veto the legislation unless it gives the federal government a say in defining what constitutes a failing school and in proposing remedies, something not provided for in the current bills.

Given the timeliness of the testing controversy,  we are releasing now (prior to the release of our full results in August) relevant information on public opinion obtained as part of the ninth annual Education Next survey administered in May and June, 2015.   In that survey we asked nationally representative samples of 700 teachers and 3,300 adult members of the general public the following question:  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?

No less than 67% of the public said they supported required annual testing, while just 21% opposed the idea, with the remainder taking a neutral position.  Parental support (66%) was nearly as high as that for the public as a whole.  Teachers were divided down the middle, with 47% favoring testing but 46% expressing opposition.

To obtain reactions to “opting out” proposals, we also asked: Some people say that ALL students should take state tests in math and reading.  Others say that parents should decide whether or not their children take these tests. Do you support or oppose letting parents decide whether to have their children take state math and reading tests? 

We found little public sympathy for the “opt-out” point of view.  Only 25% of the public like the idea, while 59% oppose it, the remainder taking a neutral position.  Among parents themselves, just 32% favored the opt-out approach, while 52% opposed it.  Fifty-seven percent of the teachers also reacted negatively to the idea, with only 32% lending it support.  Clearly, the public favors the Senate education bill’s approach to this issue over that of the bill that passed the House.

On the matter of federal intervention, we asked: What level of government should play the biggest role in deciding whether or not a school is failing? Responses were as follows:

Federal government: 18%
State Government: 50%
Local government: 32%

Despite the support of civil rights groups for the Obama Administration’s insistence that low-performing schools be identified, the responses of the representative sample of several hundred black Americans we surveyed were similar to those of the public as a whole; only 23% thought the feds should decide this issue. In other words, there is no apparent sympathy among either the public or the African American community for the Obama Administration’s position on the identification of and intervention in failing schools.

In short, the public supports federally required annual testing and opposes those who would give families the right to “opt out” of the requirement.  And were the president to veto a bill passed by Congress on the grounds that it provided insufficient federal oversight of state accountability programs, explaining his decision to the public would be an uphill battle. If those in our nation’s capital want to modify federal education policy along lines preferred by the public at large, they will enact a law that resembles the bipartisan bill passed by the Senate.

— Paul E. Peterson and Martin R. West

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