Parents Want Standards and Student Testing

Published December 1, 2000

Despite well-publicized protests by teachers and students against the imposition of academic standards and standardized tests, a new survey finds the vast majority of parents–the paying customers for educational services–support the way higher academic standards are being put in place.

And while some educators have complained of “teaching to the test” in pressure-cooker classrooms, few parents report that teachers overemphasize standardized tests to the detriment of other important learning, or that their own child is overly taxed by school work.

Earlier this year, several hundred Massachusetts students from tenth-graders down to fourth-graders protested against a new statewide test designed to evaluate students and schools. Massachusetts, like many other states, is moving towards a system that will require students to pass at least one standardized test in order to graduate from high school. Students–and many educators–contend a standardized test cannot hope to measure the breadth of each student’s abilities.

But parents emphatically disagree, according to a nationwide survey of 803 parents of K-12 public school students conducted by the nonprofit, nonpartisan organization Public Agenda. Only 2 percent of parents who know their school district is implementing higher academic standards want that effort to stop and go back to the way things were before the standards were put in place. More than half of the parents (53 percent) want the effort to go forward as planned, and another one-third (34 percent) agree with the effort but would make some adjustments.

“Based on this research–and surveys by other organizations–reports of the ‘death’ of the standards movement have been wildly exaggerated,” says Public Agenda president Deborah Wadsworth. “Parents with children in schools where these reforms have been instituted say their districts have been ‘careful and reasonable.’ They give their schools remarkably good notices on the changes they have made.”

If large numbers of students in their school district did poorly on a standardized test, most parents (57 percent) would conclude “that the schools failed to adequately prepare students.” Far fewer (22 percent) would think “that something was wrong with how the test was designed.” Seventy-six percent agree that “requiring schools to publicize their standardized test scores is a wake-up call and a good way to hold schools accountable.”

Would parents’ support for high standards waver if it meant their own child would be held back a grade? Two out of three parents (68 percent) still approved when faced with that possibility. Even more parents (85 percent) said their approval for high standards would persist if their own child was advised to attend summer school in order to meet those standards before promotion to the next grade. Seventy-five percent of parents agree that “students pay more attention and study harder if they know they must pass a test to get promoted or to graduate.”

“There is nothing wrong” with spending a significant portion of class time preparing students for these tests, say a majority of parents (55 percent), who support using the tests to measure important skills and knowledge, to identify struggling students early so they can get help, and for assessing school performance.

Few parents report that their own child is overly taxed either by school work or by the pressure of tests. Based on parents’ experiences with their own children, the Public Agenda survey found:

  • Only 9 percent of parents say teachers are putting too much academic pressure on their child.
  • Only 10 percent say their child is getting too much homework.
  • Only 10 percent say their child’s school fails to provide extra help to students who are struggling.
  • Only 11 percent say their child’s school requires them to take too many standardized tests.
  • Only 18 percent say the teachers in their child’s school “focus so much on preparing for standardized tests that real learning is neglected.”

Nevertheless, most parents do not want important decisions about their child’s future to rest solely on the outcome of a single test. Almost eight in 10 (78 percent) agree “it’s wrong to use the results of just one test to decide whether a student gets promoted or graduates.”

The Public Agenda survey is based on a national random sample telephone survey of 803 parents of public school students in grades K-12 conducted between September 18 and 26, 2000. The margin of error for the national sample is +/- 3 percentage points.

Public Agenda, a nonprofit, nonpartisan public policy research organization headquartered in New York City, was founded in 1975 by former U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance and social scientist and author Daniel Yankelovich.. Its mission is to inform leaders about the public’s views and to inform citizens about government policy.

For more information . . .

visit the Public Agenda Web site at