You Must Know About EdNext Poll on School Reform

The American public is displaying its independent streak. Critics of testing will take no comfort from the findings of the 2015 Education Next poll—but neither will supporters of the Common Core State Standards, school choice, merit pay, or tenure reform. The unions will not like the public’s view on their demands that nonmembers contribute financially to their activities. Teachers will be unhappy to hear that public enthusiasm for increasing teacher pay falls through the floor when people are told current salary levels and asked if they are willing to pay additional taxes for that purpose. The Obama administration will be equally unhappy to hear what both teachers and the public think about its proposals to require similar student suspension and expulsion rates across racial and ethnic groups.

These are among the many findings to emerge from the ninth annual Education Next survey, administered in May and June 2015 to a nationally representative sample of some 4,000 respondents, including oversamples of roughly 700 teachers, 700 African Americans, and 700 Hispanics (see methodology sidebar). The large number of survey respondents enabled us to ask alternative questions on the same topic in order to determine the sensitivity of opinion to new information and particular wording. We also posed many new questions in 2015, allowing us to explore opinion on curricular and other issues that have never before been examined in a nationally representative survey of the American public.

Testing and Accountability

In early 2015, as Congress began rewriting the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), no issue loomed larger than the use of student testing to measure the performance of schools and teachers. Media reports featured teachers decrying a scourge of overtesting. By spring, hundreds of thousands of parents had chosen to have their children “opt out” of state tests, garnering the rousing approval of the teachers unions. Out on the hustings, Republican presidential candidates escalated their critique of the Common Core. The movement to put “the standardized testing machine in reverse,” in the words of New York mayor Bill de Blasio, seemed to have legs.

It is perhaps surprising, then, that in July a bipartisan Senate supermajority of 81–17 passed a revision of NCLB that keeps the federal requirement that all students be tested in math and reading in grades 3 to 8 and again in high school. Has the upper chamber ignored the people’s will? Or, is the public’s appetite for the information provided by regular student testing broader and more robust than the media coverage would indicate?

Our polling suggests the latter (see Figure 1). A solid 67% of members of the public say they support continuing the federal requirement for annual testing, while just 21% oppose the idea, with the remainder taking a neutral position. Parental support for testing (66%) is about as high as that of the public as a whole. Teachers are divided down the middle, with 47% saying yes and 46% saying no to continuing the policy.

In 2012, the last time we asked this question, 63% of the public said they supported annual testing, and only 12% opposed. In other words, the shares of supporters and opponents are both slightly higher in 2015 than they were three years ago, with the share taking a neutral position declining from 25% to 13%. This shift could suggest that public opinion has crystallized in the intervening years (but it may also reflect the fact that our survey presented the neutral response option more prominently in 2012). Either way, the backlash against standardized testing appears less potent than opponents claim.

Opting out. The House of Representatives also passed a reauthorization bill requiring that states maintain annual testing regimes, but its version differs from the Senate’s in one key respect: it 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 between the two bills looms large, because one cannot assess school performance accurately unless nearly all students participate in the testing process.