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Reality Check: No Sign of Testing Backlash
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For the fifth consecutive year, Public Agenda has conducted its Reality Check survey about the education-reform movement. Rather than finding indignation growing over standardized testing, parents, teachers, and students report that testing has an important role and is not causing students as much stress as initially feared. Included: Link to a summary of Reality Check 2002.

The expected wave of opposition to standardized testing from teachers, parents, and students so far is little more than a ripple, according to Reality Check 2002, the fifth annual survey on the standards movement.

"This year, despite some headlines trumpeting a 'backlash to testing,' Reality Check shows strong agreement on the useful role standardized tests can play and a broad consensus on how they should be used," according to a summary of the results published in Education Week. "The standards movement continues to attract widespread support among teachers and parents, and public school students nationwide appear to be adjusting comfortably to the status quo."

Since 1998, Public Agenda, a nonpartisan, nonprofit public opinion research organization, has surveyed teachers, parents, and students about the efforts to raise academic standards. Education Week has published the results each year. For the 2002 report, 600 K-12 public school educators, 610 parents of public school students, and 600 students in public middle and high school from across the nation were surveyed by telephone.

Also surveyed were 252 professors at two- and four-year colleges who taught freshmen and sophomores in the past two years and 251 employers who hire young people directly out of high school or college. Members of the education and business communities have shown interest in the results.

"Our goal is to see whether the standards movement has taken hold in the classroom," says Ann Duffett, associate director of research for Public Agenda. "We've been asking similar questions for five years. Everyone had been concerned about kids' reaction [to standardized testing], but they seem to be saying, 'We can handle it.'"

Another fear -- that time spent teaching to tests would leave little room for other forms of learning -- also does not seem to have materialized. Only a quarter of teachers surveyed said they focus so much on test preparation that "real learning is neglected."

Teachers, parents, employers, or college professors voiced no support to return to the pre-standards movement days. At the same time, there was agreement that tests should be only one factor in deciding whether a student is promoted.

"The fears about standardized testing's taking over and determining a student's promotion has not come to pass," Duffett tells Education World.


Among the key findings in the study:
  • Fifty-six percents of students surveyed said they take standardized testing "very seriously," and 73 percent said they get nervous but can handle it. Only 5 percent said they get so nervous they cannot take the tests.
  • Seventy-one percent of students said that most students do the bare minimum to get by in school, and 56 percent said they could try harder themselves.
  • The vast majority of teachers (75 percent), parents (85 percent), employers (79 percent), and professors (79 percent) responded that students work harder if they have to pass a test for promotion or graduation.
  • At the same time, the major share of teachers (79 percent) parents (66 percent), professors (79 percent), and employers (64 percent) expressed concern that teachers would spend too much time teaching to a test and not ensuring real learning takes place. However, only 26 percent of teachers responded that real learning was neglected because of time spent on test preparation.
  • Only 3 percent of teachers reported that students in their school are promoted only on the basis of test scores.
In other areas, teachers reported that social promotion had decreased at their schools since 1998 by almost 10 percent and that summer school attendance by students has increased.


Despite the emphasis on standards, for the fifth straight year, employers and college professors said that although high school graduates are good with computers, they lack basic skills in writing and mathematics.

Seventy-three percent of employers and 74 percent of professors described the youngsters they see as having fair or poor skills in grammar and spelling. Seventy-five percent of professors and 73 percent of employers said the same was true for their ability to write clearly, and 63 percent of employers and 65 percent of professors described youngsters' basic math skills as fair or poor.

Those in higher education and industry, though, acknowledge the efforts school districts are making. In the 2002 report, 47 percent of professors said "school districts expect students too learn too little" compared with 66 percent in 1998. The figures for employers also dropped, from 55 percent in 1998 to 48 percent in 2002.


Some of the responses were reassuring, according to Susan Whitmore, spokeswoman for the National Education Association (NEA), the nation's largest teachers union.

"With all the talk about high-stakes testing, I'm surprised that kids said they didn't feel pressure," Whitmore tells Education World. The NEA would like to have seen surveys of elementary school children, who often are experiencing this type of testing for the first time, she adds. "But I'm glad to see there is a feeling that schools shouldn't rely on one test for assessment."

Duffett of Public Agenda tells Education World that conducting phones surveys would be more difficult with elementary-age children than older children.

The NEA continues to advocate for a balance between group projects and testing in classrooms, Whitmore adds. "We think an important emphasis on empathy and social skills is sacrificed in drilling for tests."