Skip the Scantron: Americans Are Fed Up With Standardized Testing

A new PDK-Gallup poll reveals that most U.S. residents believe there’s too much emphasis on high-stakes exams.

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Aug 24, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

It might be the ripple effect of the opt-out movement, or maybe it’s a growing awareness of the stress both kids and K–12 educators are feeling. But requiring public school students to spend hours of class time bubbling in multiple choice answers on a standardized test—and then evaluating teachers with the results—seems to have fallen out of favor with the American public.

At least, that’s one of the major findings of the 47th annual PDK-Gallup poll. The survey found that 64 percent of respondents believe there’s too much emphasis on standardized testing in their local public schools. That’s a sharp reversal from 1970, when 75 percent of U.S. residents said they wanted kids in their community to take a nationally administered high-stakes exam so they could be sure students were on par with their peers.

Just 14 percent of public school parents polled responded that test scores, which usually arrive after the school year is over, are very important. That doesn’t mean Americans aren’t still interested in assessing how well students and schools are doing—they just want a return to more tried-and-true methods of measurement, such as how enthusiastic kids are and how they perform on regular assignments and tests. The poll found that nearly 80 percent of Americans responded that “how engaged students are with their classwork and their level of hope for the future are very important for measuring the effectiveness of the public schools in their community,” according to a statement from PDK.

Although some civil rights activists have recently challenged the use of high-stakes exams in schools, parents of color are still more likely to support standardized testing as a tool for measuring teacher and school quality. One-third of blacks and Hispanics polled by PDK-Gallup said that testing is very important to improving public schools in their community.

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“I just looked at test scores,” Jesus Andrade, a dad from Los Angeles, told PDK about how he chose a school for his children. “Since I live in South Central, I don’t have a choice between a good school and the best school. I had a choice between the worst schools and a good education all around.”

Other parents polled by PDK-Gallup blamed the U.S. Department of Education and top-down mandates such as No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top—both of which increased emphasis on using state testing results as a tool for evaluating teachers and schools—for negative changes in public education.

“The minute they tied teacher evaluations to those tests, they set up the classrooms to be about nothing except testing. Now teachers’ careers hang on this ludicrous test. So of course they’re going to make kids spend all of their time preparing for the test. Their careers depend on it,” Jeanette Deutermann, a public school parent from New York, told PDK.

Deutermann’s sentiments seem to reflect the stance of the National Education Association. “We must reduce the emphasis on standardized tests that have corrupted the quality of the education children receive. The pressure placed on students and educators is enormous. We want standards to succeed and be challenged by teaching critical thinking and problem solving skills, as well as creativity,” NEA president Lily Eskelsen García said in a statement about the poll.

Poll respondents recommended bolstering school budgets instead of emphasizing testing as a top priority for improving schools. How should any additional funds poured into district coffers best be used? Eskelsen García recommended increasing the number of school counselors and nurses, boosting the number of honors and Advanced Placement classes, and promoting creativity-building arts programs. “Our focus should be on ensuring access to those types of programs, because they are much more likely to lead to student success than rote memorization and bubble tests,” she said.