To Test and Test Not

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Hearing Vice President Al Gore and George W. Bush parry over who has the tougher testing regime on Tuesday night, you'd think you were caught in the middle of a good old my-dad-can-beat-up-your-dad schoolyard brawl. You'd be right. And it's not just wannabe residents of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue who are in this tussle. As the stakes of standardized tests have risen dramatically over the past few years, tying student promotion and teacher bonuses to the results of one stressful afternoon darkening ovals with a no. 2 pencil, some parents have begun a backlash. Many are keeping their kids home on test days and staging noisy, headline-grabbing rallies in protest. In response, some states have backpedaled from the most stringent testing policies, often decreasing the weight placed on exams or rolling back the year in which they take full effect.

But those states may be retreating too soon. A couple of new surveys challenge the notion that parents are wholly against standardized tests. The conclusion: Parents want standardized tests. They just don't want them to mean everything to children and their schools. According to one, a poll of 803 parents of public school children in grades K-12 released Thursday by the non-partisan, non-profit group Public Agenda, a full 82% agreed that states have been "careful and reasonable" in implementing new standards. Only 11 percent said their kids are taking too many standardized exams, 12 percent felt these tests unfairly difficult and 18 percent said schools are neglecting "real learning" in favor of rote test prep. The enthusiasm echoes a survey released last month by The Business Roundtable which found that 73 percent of parents favored statewide reading and math exams to determine which kids should be promoted from fourth to fifth grades; 65 percent supported high school exit exams.

"This was never a backlash against standards, but it's always been about the tests themselves," says Monty Neill of FairTest, an advocacy group in Cambridge, Mass. Indeed, when the Public Agenda survey asked parents specifically about whether it's wrong for a child's grade promotion or graduation to hinge on just one exam, 78% concurred.

But judging by Gore and Bush's tug-of-war on testing the other night, the candidates think the public support for high-stakes exams is unflagging. Despite Gore's repeated protests that he supports mandatory testing (he does, sort of, but not until 2004 and only in fourth, eighth and twelfth grades), Bush would go a step further, requiring states either to test kids every year from third through eighth grade or lose 5% of federal aid. At least on the testing issue, W's the toughest kid on the playground.