Schoolquality
What Americans say about…

Measuring school quality

Parents say standardized tests don’t measure what’s important to them. They put such tests at the bottom of the indicators of school quality. 

This year’s survey makes clear the public’s substantial skepticism toward standardized testing. Consider: 

  • Student performance on standardized tests ranks last — by a very wide margin — among six indicators of school quality tested in PDK’s study.
  • Among public school parents, fewer than six in 10 are very or somewhat confident that standardized tests measure how well their child is learning, including just 19% who are very confident that this is the case.
  • Again, fewer than six in 10 (57%) say their state does a very or somewhat good job evaluating the quality of their local schools, including just 14% who say their state does a very good job of this. Such assessments typically rely in large part on test scores.
  • Fewer than half (46%) are very or somewhat confident that standardized tests measure “the things about your child’s public school education that are most important to you personally,” including just 17% who are very confident of this. 

Student's performance on standardized tests ranks last among six indicators of school quality in the study.

The results on school quality are illustrative. Eight in 10 Americans see the extent to which schools help students develop interpersonal skills – such as cooperation, respect, and persistence – as extremely or very important in school quality. As many say the same about schools offering technology and engineering classes to help students prepare for careers in those fields. 

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Three-quarters see the opportunity to take advanced academic classes as a highly important factor in school quality. And seven in 10 say the same about both extracurricular activities and art and music classes, areas in which many budget-strapped schools cut back. 

Compare these to the number who see student performance on standardized tests as highly important: 42%. That’s 28 to 40 points fewer than say the same about art and music classes, extracurriculars, advanced academics, career-focused technology and engineering classes, and the development of students’ interpersonal skills. 

The single most important item was computed by adding those who picked just one item as extremely important with those who picked multiple items as extremely important and then were asked to pick the top one. The result: Thirty-six percent rate helping students learn interpersonal skills as the single most important item in school quality, followed by having technology and engineering classes, 25%. Last on the list, again, is student performance on standardized tests, at just 6%. 

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In statistical modeling, lacking confidence in standardized tests is a predictor of rating them as less important in school quality. As noted, just 19% are very confident in these tests, 39% are somewhat confident, while four in 10 express little or no confidence in them.  

Confidence is lower in the ability of standardized tests to measure students’ interpersonal skills; just 39% are very or somewhat confident in this. (There’s a pronounced racial/ethnic difference – 60% of Hispanics and 54% of blacks are confident that standardized tests can measure interpersonal skills, vs. 32% of whites.) Even so, 84% overall say such testing should be undertaken, and 66% say schools should be held accountable for the scores (peaking among men, noncollege graduates, lower-income adults, and Hispanics). These results suggest that accountability is in demand, even if the measurement is imperfect. 

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A deeper dive

Some groups are more apt than others to rate standardized tests as an important marker of school quality; these include nonwhites, noncollege graduates, conservatives, and those with household incomes of less than $50,000 a year. 

Considering other indicators of school quality: 

  • Blacks are more likely than whites to rate each of four metrics as highly important; in addition to standardized tests, these are extracurricular activities, advanced academic classes, and technology and engineering classes. Hispanics, for their part, are most apt to rate developing interpersonal skills as highly important in school quality, though it’s high across the board – 89% of Hispanics and 80% of whites and blacks alike. 
  • Women, Democrats, and liberals are more likely than their counterparts to see helping students learn interpersonal skills as highly important, and to see art and music classes as highly important to school quality. Liberals (84%) also are more apt than conservatives (77%) or moderates (70%) to see advanced academic classes as highly important.

Confidence in standardized tests, for its part, is tied to how well people grade public schools nationally; 70% of those who give the schools an A or a B are very or somewhat confident vs. 39% of those who give the schools a D or an F. It’s similar, but less pronounced, with local school grades. In statistical modeling, confidence in standardized tests is most strongly predicted by the grade one gives the local public schools as well as by seeing tests as an important factor in school quality. 

The Questions

  1. Q. For each item I name, please tell me how important it is in school quality – extremely important, very important, somewhat important, not so important, or not important at all.
    1. How well students do on standardized tests
    2. How well the school helps students learn skills like being cooperative, respectful of others, and persistent at solving problems
    3. Having advanced academic classes
    4. Having art and music classes
    5. Having extracurricular activities
    6. Having technology and engineering classes to help students prepare for careers in those fields
  2. Q. As far as you are aware, how good a job does your state do when it evaluates the quality of public schools in your community – does it do this very well, somewhat well, somewhat poorly, or very poorly?
  3. Q. Thinking of the standardized tests your child in public school takes, how confident are you that these tests do a good job measuring how well your child is learning? Are you very confident of that, somewhat confident, not so confident, or not confident at all?
  4. Q. Do you think that standardized tests do or do not measure the things about your child’s public school education that are most important to you personally? Do you feel that way strongly or somewhat?
  5. Q. In addition to being assessed on their academic performance, do you think students should or should not also be assessed on skills such as being cooperative, respectful of others, and persistent at solving problems?
  6. Q. How confident are you that standardized tests can do a good job measuring how well students have developed skills such as being cooperative, respectful of others, and persistent at solving problems – are you very confident that standardized tests can do a good job measuring these things, somewhat confident, not so confident, or not confident at all?
  7. Q. In addition to being held accountable for student test scores on academic skills, do you think public schools should or should not also be held accountable for student test scores on these other skills?

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