- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 23, 2001

For the first time in 33 years, a majority of Americans gave their local schools As and Bs, with only 5 percent saying public schools failed to educate their youngsters, according to the annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll.

Despite their belief schools are improving, Americans are uncertain and confused about the role standardized tests play in advancing academic achievement.

"Educators going back to work this week and next ought to take pride in the fact the American people believe that the public schools are improving," said Jack Jennings, director of the Washington-based Center on Education Policy, which released the national poll.

Fifty-one percent gave their public school a grade of A or B, with about 30 percent giving a grade of C.

The appropriate use of high-stakes standardized tests to measure student performance remains a "volatile issue," said Lowell Rose, the poll's director.

Sixty-three percent favor increased use of standardized tests for measuring student achievement, the poll found. A majority (53 percent) favor the use of a single standardized test to determine grade-to-grade promotion, as well as whether a student should earn a high school diploma (57 percent), and 45 percent and 42 percent, respectively, oppose such use of tests.

Three-fourths of those surveyed said standardized tests should be used primarily to determine instructional needs, and 65 percent said class work and homework are better measures of student achievement than test scores (31 percent).

"We need a full debate on the proper use of testing with the public," Mr. Jennings urged.

Most Americans think George W. Bush will be a better education president than Bill Clinton, and they broadly support Mr. Bush's call for increased school accountability. While 51 percent support school vouchers as a remedy in the case of failing public schools, general support for the publicly funded private-school scholarships has dropped to 34 percent after highs in 1997 and 1998 of 44 percent.

Eighty-eight percent said closing the achievement gap between white and minority students is very or somewhat important, with support higher among Democrats, 74 percent, than Republicans, 59 percent. The public is divided over whether it is government's responsibility to close the gap, poll officials said.

While the public does not hold schools responsible for the achievement gap — 73 percent blame it on other factors — 55 percent of those surveyed say schools should be responsible for closing it, Mr. Rose said.

The PDK poll results were criticized as biased by two groups yesterday. Officials from the Washington-based Center for Education Reform (CER) said questions about school choice were misleading. The CER said the survey worded questions on alternative teacher certification to cast it negatively.

Clint Bolick, vice president of the Institute for Justice, a public-interest law firm that has defended school-choice programs, said the PDK poll creates "a false dichotomy between improving public schools, on one hand, and offering alternatives on the other hand."

"School choice is a means of providing alternatives to kids who desperately need them, while prodding public-school improvements at the same time," said Mr. Bolick, charging that special-interest groups have distorted facts about vouchers.


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