August 28, 2007

Parents change their minds on teaching to the test

Since 2002, the annual fall release of results from the Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll of public attitudes towards public education has become increasingly focused on NCLB. Today's release (hat tip) is no exception, and my guess is that most reporters will run with the results of the first section on NCLB and accountability.

My nomination for most significant result is from Table 14, asked of those who agreed in a prior question that "standardized tests encourage teachers to 'teach to the test,' that is, concentrate on teaching their students to pass the tests rather than teaching the subject." The majorities answering yes to that first question (in Table 13) haven't changed much between 2003 (when 68% of public-school parents and 64% of adults without children in school said yes, standardized testing encouraged teaching to the test) and 2007 (with 75% and 66% of each group saying testing encouraged teaching to the test).

While a clear majority has always seen testing as encouraging teaching to the test, American adults have changed their mind on whether that is good or not. In 2003, 40% of surveyed parents with children in public schools thought that teaching to the test was a good thing. This fits in well with arguments by David Labaree, Jennifer Hochschild, and Nathan Scovronick that a good part of the appeal of public schooling is to serve private purposes, giving children a leg up in a competitive environment. In that context, it makes enormous sense to value teaching to the test, since many parents understand how college admissions tests are related to access to selective institutions and scholarships. While 58% of public-school parents thought that teaching to the test was a bad idea in 2003, a sizable minority thought it was just fine.

That opinion has changed, dramatically. In the 2007 poll, only 17% of public-school parents thought that teaching to the test was a good thing. Fewer than one-half of one percent had no opinion, and 83% of public-school parents thought that teaching to the test is a bad thing. Adults who did not have children in school also have changed their minds, with 22% of those surveyed this year thinking that teaching to the test is a good thing.

This question was asked separately from the issue of narrowing the curriculum. While there may be some spillage or confusion of issues, I think the sea change is a warning to advocates of high-stakes test-only accountability: Few parents see benefits in sending their children to test-prep factories. Fix that consequence or see the political foundations of accountability crumble.

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein on August 28, 2007 10:57 AM |