No Backlash on Standards

Published May 1, 2002

The latest “reality check” on the standards-based reform movement, recently released by Public Agenda in conjunction with Education Week, confirms that the notion of a standards “backlash” has been greatly exaggerated.

Students, teachers, and parents seem to be settling into the “new status quo” of rigorous standards and testing regimes with relative ease. However, the success of these reforms has not yet been perceived by those who work with recent high school graduates.

Public Agenda President Deborah Wadsworth concluded there is “impressive support for moving ahead with the standards movement,” even though its impact on student achievement is not yet clear.

“Despite some glimmers of hope, the high levels of dissatisfaction among employers and professors—who are in many ways the ultimate ‘consumers’ of K-12 education—are disheartening,” Wadsworth said.

“Reality Check 2002” is the fifth annual survey performed by Public Agenda to assess the nation’s progress in implementing standards-based reforms, an effort that will soon be heightened when strong testing and accountability measures from the “No Child Left Behind” act, signed into law in January by President George W. Bush, take hold.

Students Can “Handle It”

While policymakers continue to grapple with creating and aligning the three elements of standards-based reform—academic standards, tests, and measures to hold districts, schools, and teachers accountable for student performance—those closest to reforms seem to be taking them in stride.

A stunning 95 percent of public middle and high school students surveyed said that, with regard to taking tests, they either do not get nervous or do “but handle it,” and 79 percent say they think standardized test questions are generally fair. Similarly, 82 percent of students say the academic expectations in their schools are “about right.”

While more than eight in 10 parent prefer that teacher evaluations be used in conjunction with standardized tests, the same number believe “students work harder if they know that they will have to pass a test for promotion or graduation.” The vast majority of parents also support testing younger students to help identify those who need special assistance in the early years.

Teachers express slightly more concern with standards-based reform, but “are largely untroubled by testing’s impact in their own classroom,” according to the survey. Less than 2 percent of all the groups surveyed would like to stop the effort toward higher standards.

Enough to Get By

But are standards-based reforms motivating students and improving their academic achievement? Unfortunately no, according to students and the adults who work with them after high school graduation.

Seven of 10 students surveyed say “most students do the bare minimum to get by,” and nearly half say “some kids graduate even though they haven’t learned what they are supposed to.” Likewise, nearly half of parents and teachers report their schools still “have a serious problem with too many students who get passed through the system without learning.”

Students affirm they have not experienced much in the way of higher standards for graduating in particular. In 1999, 52 percent of students said they had to pass an exit exam to graduate; in 2002, slightly less (49 percent) said they did. Similarly, 56 percent of today’s teachers report test scores “are not part of the decision” of which students are promoted at their school, and 39 percent say scores are used “only in part.”

The inability of standards-based reform to help ensure high school graduates are possessed of basic skills—at least so far—is clearly perceived by college professors and employers.

For the fifth straight year, these groups express profound disappointment with the preparedness of high school graduates. Seven in 10 of them say the graduates they encounter have only “fair” or “poor” skills in grammar, spelling, and writing; and six in 10 say the same holds true for basic math. Graduates’ work habits—such as “being organized and on time”—also receive poor marks from a strong majority of employers (69 percent) and professors (74 percent).

Only 16 percent of employers and 24 percent of professors say they notice an improvement in the quality of high school seniors they have encountered in recent years. Slightly more—39 percent of employers and 31 percent of professors—say they regard a high school diploma as evidence a student has mastered basic skills.

Public Agenda notes that another of its 2002 surveys found that only 20 percent of high school teachers believe the students in their schools “learn to speak and write well, with proper pronunciation and grammar.” One other study may help explain why: In its 1997 report, “Different Drummers: How Teachers of Teachers View Public Education,” Public Agenda found only 19 percent of education professors believed it was “absolutely essential” to produce teachers who “stress correct spelling, grammar, and punctuation” for their students.

In contrast to the low marks they are receiving for basic skills, today’s high school graduates seem to have much less difficulty mastering computer technology. Seventy percent of employers and 81 percent of college professors say graduates have “good” or “excellent” skills in this area.

“Reality Check 2002,” funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts and the GE Fund, was based on telephone calls made during one month in 2001 to national, randomly selected samples. Complete results of the “Reality Check” surveys from 1998 to 2002 will be made available later this year.

Kelly Amis, former program director for The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, is now president of Education Allies, a new nonprofit organization that provides research and advisory services to education donors. Her email address is [email protected].

For more information …

Public Agenda’s four previous “Reality Check” surveys, and primary findings of the 2002 survey, are available online at