Please read the following two sentences carefully. Choose which is correct, A or B.
A. According to a brand-new national poll, two-thirds of the American public supports annual federal testing, and 59 percent oppose letting students opt out of tests, while only 1 in 4 supports opting out.
B. According to a brand-new national poll, two-thirds of the American public thinks there is too much testing in schools. As for opt-outs, they are split, with 44 percent opposing it and 41 percent supporting it.
Standardized testing is a cornerstone of federal education policy in the U.S. States must test every student every year in math and reading from grades 3-8, and once in high school, and report the results.
These tests — and the many other tests that states and districts add on top of them — have drawn controversy. The pushback has been led by New York state, where 1 in 5 students "opted out" from taking the state tests this past spring. This act of collective civil disobedience may invalidate that state's compliance with federal accountability requirements.
At the same time, the federal law that requires annual testing is up for renewal, and some have proposed amendments that would affirm the right of parents to opt out. So this is the right moment for a national debate.
To understand what's behind a poll, you have to look closely at three questions: Who is asking the question? Whom are they asking? What are they asking?
Both of these polls are large, representative national samples. And their results on other questions, like whether you approve of your local school, are nearly identical. Therefore, it's likely that the mystery can be solved by looking closely at the phrasing of these specific questions on testing.
The poll that found Americans in favor of testing and against opting out was conducted by the education-policy journal Education Next. EdNext has three sponsors: the Fordham Institute, the Hoover Institution at Stanford and Harvard's Kennedy School. Both Fordham and Hoover have been associated with policies such as charter schools, the Common Core State Standards and test-based accountability.
EdNext put the testing question this way:
Do you support or oppose the federal government continuing to require that all students be tested in math and reading each year in grades 3-8 and once in high school?
In the responses, 35 percent of the general public said they "completely" supported annual tests and an additional 32 percent said they "somewhat" supported them, for a total of 67 percent in support.
Gallup, in collaboration with a group called Phi Delta Kappa International, has been conducting polls on education for almost 50 years. And while Gallup is a polling organization that's widely regarded as neutral, PDK is a professional organization for educators that has been associated with policies like more funding for public schools and better professional development for teachers, while being critical of test-based accountability.
On testing, PDK/Gallup asked a very different question:
"In your opinion, is there too much emphasis on standardized testing in the public schools in your community, not enough emphasis on standardized testing, or just the right amount?"
Sixty-four percent of respondents said "too much."
The thing is, it's very possible to agree that there's "too much emphasis on standardized testing" and at the same time support annual federally required tests.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan, for one, has spoken in favor of both positions. And the current versions of the No Child Left Behind Act being debated in Congress would maintain annual testing, while including provisions designed to cut back on unnecessary, redundant or poorly designed tests.
"We asked about emphasis on testing," says Joshua Starr, the new executive director of PDK. "That has nothing to do with whether or not kids should take tests every year."
When it comes to opting out, it's a little harder to resolve the apparent contradiction between the two polls.
"Do you think that all parents with children in the public schools should be allowed to excuse their child from taking one or more standardized tests?"
When asked this way, 41 percent said yes and 44 percent said no.
"Some people say that ALL students should take state tests in math and reading. Others say that parents should decide whether or not their children take these tests. Do you support or oppose letting parents decide whether to have their children take state math and reading tests?
When asked this way, 25 percent support and 59 percent oppose.
Paul Peterson, the editor-in-chief of EdNext and a professor at Harvard, points to "excuse" as a key word in the other guy's poll that he says is designed to sway people. "We do it all the time — we give students excuses from class for seeing the doctor, or excuses for being tardy. So 'excuses' is a very sweet word." (Starr resists drawing comparisons, saying, "We're considered a really unbiased view of Americans' perspectives.")
At the same time, the EdNext poll mentions that the test is a state requirement, so maybe that makes opting out sound like a bigger deal.
No matter how you slice it, both polls show most people don't support allowing parents to choose whether to opt their children out of tests. And the Gallup Poll says most Americans wouldn't choose to opt out their own kids.
That's interesting because some proposed amendments to No Child Left Behind, as well as several state laws, would grant parents that choice.
If these polls are to be believed, those amendments would appease a small minority of parents at the expense of the majority's belief.
But there's another problem. Getting a permission slip is not what the opt-out movement is actually trying to do.
Based on my reporting and public statements from some leaders of the opt-out movement, the goal of parents in most cases is not just to spare their children the burden of sitting and answering questions for a few hours.
These parents aren't asking for leeway based on families' personal preferences. In their view, they are deliberately breaking the law to force a change in the broader policy.