California Voters Strongly Support Student Testing

September 03, 2013

Results of the PACE/USC Rossier Poll
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PACE/USC Rossier Poll shows support for keeping power with local educators and school boards, but not without accountability

Despite calls from Sacramento to reduce standardized testing in California public schools, voters strongly support the use of state standardized tests, both as an essential way to measure student performance and as an important element in teachers’ evaluations, a new PACE/USC Rossier School of Education Poll shows.

Nearly two-thirds of California voters said students should be tested in every grade level to ensure they are progressing, as opposed to 22 percent of voters who said California should cut back on testing. Among parents with school children, 66 percent said California should test students in each grade level and 25 percent said the state should cut back.

“Most of the political experts say that parents think their children are tested too frequently, but our poll shows just the opposite,” said poll director Dan Schnur, who also serves as the director of USC’s Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics. “Large majorities of California parents, and even larger majorities of state voters, want to see students tested regularly and in a wide range of subjects.”

When asked about testing high schoolers, 55 percent of voters said California should test students in all subjects, as opposed to 34 percent who said the state should test students in math and English but let teachers evaluate their students in other subjects. Among parents with school children, 51 percent agreed with testing high schoolers in all subjects and 42 percent said testing should be limited to English and math.

Voters also said student performance on standardized tests should play a sizable role in evaluating a teacher’s effectiveness.

Forty-three percent of voters said teachers should be judged equally on their students’ standardized test results, assessments of their classroom performance and evaluations by peers. Thirty percent said evaluations should include some student test results but should be weighted mostly toward classroom assessments and peer evaluations. Only 10 percent of Californians said student performance on standardized tests shouldn’t be used to evaluate teachers at all, and 8 percent said teachers should be evaluated mostly on test results, with some assessment of their classroom performance and peer evaluations.

“A decade after ‘No Child Left Behind,’ Californians remain strongly supportive of standardized testing,” said Morgan Polikoff, assistant professor at the USC Rossier School. “These results suggest that Californians believe standardized tests should remain an important part of California education policy moving forward; however, they also believe that outcomes other than reading and mathematics are essential for California’s schools.”

‘Tough love’ for teachers

Californians are strongly supportive of teachers and want to give them additional tools to succeed, but also want teachers held to higher standards.

Fifty-two percent of voters agreed that paying teachers more for exceeding performance standards would improve the quality of the state’s public schools, as opposed to 21 percent who said it would make things worse.

A plurality of voters also said they would choose to provide additional support and training to struggling teachers (42 percent) over making it easier to fire teachers who “repeatedly fail to perform at acceptable levels” (29 percent).

But most voters (48 percent) said teachers are largely to blame if a school fails, followed by parents (28 percent) and local school boards (25 percent).

More than 80 percent believe at least some component of teacher evaluation should be based on student standardized test scores.

And when asked what would have the most positive impact on public schools, the top answer was “removing bad teachers from the classroom” (43 percent), followed by “more involvement from parents” (33 percent), and “more money for school districts and schools” (25 percent).

“In California, state law and local rules make it challenging for districts to reward their best teachers and remove their worst teachers,” said Dominic Brewer, Clifford H. and Betty C. Allen Professor in Urban Leadership at the USC Rossier School. “Voters, however, clearly think both strategies would help improve schools. “

“There’s a basic ‘pro-teacher’ sentiment, that teachers should largely be in the driver’s seat and should get the tools, money and extra training they need,” Brewer said. “But there is a tough love message from voters: they value and trust teachers and want them to have more resources, but they also want real accountability for student outcomes.”

Voters favor local control

Voters overwhelmingly agreed that power and responsibility for school performance should rest in the hands of local school boards and teachers, not at the state level.

Nearly half of voters, 49 percent, said the main responsibility for ensuring student success should rest with local educators; 28 percent said local school districts; and 23 percent said the state legislature.

When asked who should be most responsible for deciding whether a school is succeeding or failing, 40 percent of voters said local school boards should decide, 20 percent said parents, and 14 percent said the state government. Only 4 percent thought that the federal government should have this responsibility.

Jury still out on Brown’s education accomplishments

When asked how Gov. Jerry Brown has handled education in California, 42 percent of voters said they approved of Brown’s work and 46 percent said they disapproved. That represents a net 23 percentage point drop from Brown’s overall approval rating, where 55 percent of voters approve of the job he’s done overall and 36 percent disapprove.

“Given his much higher profile action on issues related to the economy and public safety and elsewhere, Brown’s early decisions on education have simply been overshadowed,” Schnur said.

“Looking closely at the drop between Gov. Brown’s overall job approval and his education job approval ratings, much of the decrease comes from his traditional support centers: Democratic female voters,” said Jeff Harrelson of Republican polling firm MFour Research, who conducted this poll with Democratic polling firm Tulchin Research. “However, the drop is less pronounced among voters who actually have kids in school, compared with those who do not have kids in school, suggesting that much of the negative attitude we see is driven by voters operating on pre-existing education system perceptions, rather than by parents whose kids are going to school every day.”

Most voters also said they were not familiar with new education policies Brown and the state Legislature have enacted in the last year.

Sixty-three percent of voters said they were “not aware” of the new funding formula that gives school districts more control over how they spend money and allocates more money to needy districts.

While four times as many more voters believe Proposition 30 – a temporary sales tax and income tax hike to fund education – has helped public schools (20 percent) than hurt public schools (5 percent), just over half of voters (54 percent), said the measure has had no effect on public schools and 22 percent said they didn’t know if it has had an impact. “Some voters give the Governor credit for Proposition 30 benefiting California’s public schools. However, he still has a lot of work to do to convince the majority of voters who believe it has not had an impact,” said Ben Tulchin, president of Democratic polling firm Tulchin Research.

The survey asked voters how much they knew about Brown’s recent local control funding formula policy and their views on the subject. Three in 10 voters (30 percent) indicated they were aware of this new policy. When presented two statements from supporters and opponents of the policy, voters were evenly divided as 30 percent agree with supporters and 31 percent sided with opponents, a statistically insignificant difference.

When asked about California’s implementation of the Common Core State Standards, 71 percent of voters said they knew little or nothing about it.

But there are signs that voters are becoming slightly more optimistic about public education.

When asked about the state’s public schools, 13 percent of voters said they were “getting better,” as compared to 7 percent who agreed in last year’s PACE/USC Rossier Poll. Forty-nine percent said state schools had “gotten worse,” as compared to 57 percent in 2012.

“Gov. Jerry Brown has made some big bets this year on the way the education system runs, and it’s really too early to say how these will play out,” said David N. Plank, executive director of PACE. “Most voters are not yet aware of these changes, but there are signs in our poll that their perceptions of California’s schools are beginning to improve. There’s reason to think Gov. Brown will see some political benefits down the road.”

Voters were also asked whom they would vote for in matchups between Brown and potential Republican challengers, including former Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado, Assemblyman Tim Donnelly (R-Twin Peaks) and businessman Neel Kashkari.

When Brown was pitted against Maldonado, 42 percent of voters chose Brown and 21 percent chose Maldonado.

In a matchup between Brown and Donnelly, 43 percent chose Brown and 21 percent chose Donnelly.

Between Brown and Kashkari, 44 percent chose Brown and 15 percent chose Kashkari.

The PACE/USC Rossier Poll was conducted Aug. 27 to 30, 2013 by polling firms MFour Research and Tulchin Research and surveyed 1,001 registered California voters. The poll was conducted online and allowed respondents to complete the survey on a desktop or laptop computer, tablet or smartphone. The poll was conducted in English and Spanish. The margin of error for the overall sample was +/- 3.5 percentage points.

The poll is the third in a series from Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE) and the USC Rossier School of Education.