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The bogus backlash

October 11, 2000

Is a major revolt against school testing and standards under way? Yes, but only in the media.”An anti-test backlash is escalating,” a breathless report in the San Jose Mercury News said last week. In California, some fearful teachers and administrators are urging parents to keep their children home when tests are given under the state’s 3-year-old accountability program. The dean of the education school at the University of California, Berkeley, is among the rebels. No surprise there. The ed schools are the cathedrals of the church of self-esteem and unconditional validation of all students, including those about to earn diplomas that they can’t read. As a rule of thumb, no education reform is truly worth supporting unless the ed schools resist it.

“Parents are listening up” when the anti-testing administrators and teachers preach resistance, according to the Mercury News. But this is contradicted by discouraging news buried in the middle of the article. It turns out that when you add all the rebel parents to all the rebel educators, it comes to only “several hundred” people in a state with some 8,600 schools and a population of 34 million. Despite instructions from rebel leaders, only 1 percent to 2 percent of parents refused to have their children tested last spring. This bad news for the revolution is given a nice spin in the article’s next line: “But critics say that the statistic doesn’t reflect the magnitude of opposition from teachers, administrators and education professors.” The backlash is so big we can’t even describe it. Some scattered good news for discouraged rebels follows, including word that “huge numbers of parents” refused to have their children tested in one elementary school in Saratoga, Calif. This massive upheaval at one school is pointed out twice, so it must be significant.

Here’s a reality check on the backlash: Last week Public Agenda, a non-partisan research group, released a nationwide poll of parents showing a massive consensus in favor of reform. “There is not anything that suggests a backlash or that a broad group of parents is dissatisfied,” a spokesman said. Of the parents who knew about the drive for higher standards and testing in their school district, only 2 percent want to go back to the old ways. A total of 87 percent want to go ahead with plans to raise standards, either as announced in their area (53 percent), or with adjustments (34 percent). Only 18 percent thought that teachers in their child’s school “focus so much on preparing for standardized tests that real learning is neglected.” About 10 percent of parents complained of too much homework, too much pressure, too many tests or not enough extra help for struggling students.

A total of 80 percent thought their school district should require graduating students to pass a basic skills test in writing, reading and math or “a more challenging test” before granting diplomas, but 78 percent drew a line by opposing the sole use of a single test to determine graduation or promotion. (The Boston Globe made this the point of its coverage, under the wildly misleading headline: “Testing Rapped in Survey.”) “Our numbers aren’t iffy at all,” said Deborah Wadsworth, president of Public Agenda. “They do not support the story of a backlash that is gradually being reiterated again and again.”

Backlash reiteration boomed last June around graduation time, then resumed again in September as pickets and protestors complained in many states. Diane Ravitch, a former assistant secretary of education and author of “Left Back,” a new history of American schooling, calls the protestors “the crickets” — few in number but making a lot of noise. She thinks that some of the negative media coverage of tests and standards may have something to do with the presidential race, since George W. Bush is so heavily identified with this issue.

Many polls undermine the backlash theory. One released last month by the Business Roundtable, an association of business chief executives, showed that two-thirds of Americans think students should have to pass a statewide test to graduate, with the number rising to 80 percent if students are given “several attempts” to pass. Two-thirds of blacks and whites and 82 percent of Hispanics endorsed graduation tests.

A year ago, a poll of teachers belonging to a union showed strong support for standards-based reform. The Albert Shanker Institute reported that members of the American Federation of Teachers supported these reforms by a 4-to-1 margin, though support for testing was less enthusiastic — 55 percent thought the emphasis on testing tended to narrow the curriculum. Opponents of standards reform commonly argue that it tends to stigmatize or harm struggling students, but the teachers strongly disagreed. By almost 2 to 1, they said it mainly benefited these students. This finding may reflect the belief that minority children, many stuck in bad schools, have the most to gain from standards reform. A Rand Corp. study found that the Texas reforms produced largest gains for Hispanics and blacks.

The obvious is true: By an overwhelming majority, Americans are fed up with awful schools and want standards, meaningful tests and accountability. Skip all articles about a backlash. It doesn’t exist.

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