Timeout for Opt-Outs?

A new poll suggests that a majority of adults think annual standardized testing is a good thing. They’re not as fond of the opt-out movement.

Mark Humphrey / AP

Americans aren’t as pissed off about standardized testing as headlines often make it seem. In fact, it looks like most of the country’s adults support it. What the public isn’t so fond of are the people who are pissed off—the ones who are so pissed off they’re boycotting the assessments as part of a growing “opt-out movement.”

These are some of the conclusions of a new poll of roughly 4,100 adults, administered by Education Next, a journal out of Stanford’s Hoover Institution, and analyzed by researchers at Harvard’s Kennedy School and Louisiana State’s Public Policy Research Lab. The survey results contain important and often counterintuitive insight into what Americans really think about all the brouhaha surrounding education policy.

As indicated by the public-policy researchers—Louisiana State’s Michael Henderson and Harvard’s Paul Peterson and Martin West—these findings are likely to help shape forthcoming education debates on Capitol Hill and elsewhere. The Senate and House will soon come together to deliberate rewrites to the long-standing federal education law that was most recently rewritten as No Child Left Behind. Since its creation half a century ago, this law, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), has largely widened the gaps it was designed to “bridge.”

The national backlash against testing has been pervasive and hard to ignore. It’s even gotten teacher’s unions and Tea Party Republicans to join forces. In New York, which is said to be the boycott’s epicenter, 20 percent of students in tested grades opted out of the state’s Common Core-aligned exams this past school year. That’s more than 200,000 kids.

Highly polarized debates over the use of test scores as part of school-reform efforts have stymied efforts to overhaul the ESEA, which was supposed to be reauthorized years ago. Now, Congress is closer than ever to finally doing away with George W. Bush’s version and replacing it with something that gives states more control. But the Senate’s leading proposal—the Every Child Achieves Act—doesn’t reduce the emphasis on testing. And that’s causing major consternation among some Republicans who reason that the federal government’s reliance on test scores for accountability is both counterproductive and universally unpopular. After all, isn’t overtesting a key reason why so many American people believe No Child Left Behind actually worsened education?

For many, exercising the parental right to opt out of testing isn’t only understandable—it’s respectable. The prominent education-policy analyst Diane Ravitch indicated in a blog post earlier this year that if Congress members—and the president and governors and legislators—were to support the opt-out movement, they would be “[hearing] the voice of the people.”

But based on the new poll results, it seems that’s the voice of a relatively small group of people. Only about 25 percent of the general public supports the opt-out movement, while roughly 60 percent opposes it.

The survey findings—which reflect a nationally representative cross-section of American adults—raise questions about the merits of the opt-out movement and its clout in policy talks. Some Senators and Representatives have insisted on rewriting the ESEA in a way that bolsters parents’ opt-out rights. (Under current regulations, schools need to test at least 95 percent of their students.) “The parents know what the system is doing and have a right to inquire,” stated the Republican Senator Johnny Isakson last month, touting the passage of his amendment—a relatively moderate provision that would require better access for parents to test-participation regulations and rights.

The House version of the law’s rewrite includes an amendment that explicitly allows parents nationwide to exempt their kids from testing. The Hill quoted the amendment’s author, the Republican Representative Matt Salmon, as saying, “parents are becoming increasingly fed up with such constant and onerous testing requirements, as well as the teachers.” And efforts to facilitate these exemptions are happening at the state level, too. Oregon, for example, recently passed a law similar to the Isakson amendment.

Nuances are evident once the data is broken down into subgroups. Unsurprisingly, the people who dislike opt-outs the most are Democrats, with 61 percent of them in opposition, versus just 22 percent in support. Parents and teachers in particular are more supportive of opt-outs, with about a third of each group endorsing them (though the objection to it is almost just as strong as that of the general public).

Meanwhile, African Americans and Hispanics (which, along with teachers, were oversampled in the survey) fall somewhere in the middle, and they appear to be the least opposed to the movement. Notably, civil-rights groups, many of them advocating on behalf of children of color, have been especially vocal in their opposition to testing exemptions on the grounds that the data is critical to improving the outcomes of disadvantaged students.

Also noteworthy is that a sizable chunk of Republican respondents actually say they oppose the movement: 57 percent, which puts them in second place (tied with teachers) if each subgroup were to be ranked on how much they object to opt outs. To be sure, as a Republican education summit earlier this week demonstrated, there’s hardly any consensus on testing within the GOP. The New York Times reported that Jeb Bush, for one, emphasized his support for annual testing, invoking one of his brother’s signature phrases when defending the mandate: the “soft bigotry of low expectations.”

The Education Next survey (whose results were published a day before the summit) found overwhelming support for the assessment requirement: About two-thirds of the general public supports the requirement, while only a fifth or so opposes it. That ratio is relatively consistent across the subgroups—except one: teachers.

But even teachers were just short of coming out with a majority opposition to the testing. In fact, they appear evenly split on the topic, with just under half of the group each supporting or opposing the federal requirement.

These survey results could suggest that Bush’s education platform is more representative of the American people than that of his contenders. After all, most of the Republicans candidates have vowed to get rid of the Common Core despite data from the survey suggesting that just over a third of the general public opposes it. Moreover, as the Education Next researchers write, although support for the standards has continued to decline, the rate of decline “slowed markedly … perhaps suggesting that opinion on the issue has begun to stabilize.”

But again, there are nuances. The survey found that, though only a minority of the general public opposes the Common Core, it continues to lose outright support. This year’s poll found that just about half—49 percent—of Americans overall support the standards, down from 53 percent last year. And even though Education Next varied the questions’ wording for some respondents—replacing the phrase “Common Core” with the more generic “standards in reading and math that are the same across the states”—opinion was relatively consistent.

That comparison is notable given numerous polls, including this one and a survey earlier this year, indicating widespread misperceptions about the standards. The Education Next researchers say these details are an encouraging sign for proponents because “the broader public’s opposition to the Common Core appears to rest on a shallow factual foundation.” A fourth of the respondents residing in the few states that don’t use Common Core believed their districts were using the standards. Another curious finding: The label “Common Core” played a significant role in shaping teachers’ opinion on it, with 48 percent of them supporting the generic idea of universal “standards” and only 40 percent of them supporting “Common Core.”

Ultimately, the findings as a whole suggest that education-reform policies face what the Washington Post might describe as a “public-relations challenge.” People tend to like (or at least not dislike) the building blocks of those policies: annual testing, universal standards, an emphasis on “core” academic subjects, and so on. But when those building blocks come with fraught political labels or, in the case of teachers, personal stakes, feelings start to change.

“School reform”—the improvement of schools—is starting to mean precisely the opposite in the eyes of the many American people. Public support for each of the seven categories outlined by Education Next as part of the “school-reform agenda” (from charter schools to ending tenure) has declined compared to last year.

“In retrospect it looks as if 2014, an election year that swept Republicans into power in Congress and many state capitals, propelled school reform to a high-water mark that has proven difficult to sustain,” the study’s researchers wrote, acknowledging some of the caveats to their findings. “School reformers might take the 2015 findings as a red light on the dashboard, a warning that efforts to alter the public’s thinking on education policy may be faltering.”