WASHINGTON -- Often criticized as too prescriptive and all-consuming, standardized tests have support among parents, who view them as a useful way to measure both students' and schools' performances, according to an Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll.
Most parents also say their own children are given about the right number of standardized tests, according to the AP-NORC poll.
They'd like to see student performance on statewide exams used in evaluating teachers, and almost three-quarters said they favored changes that would make it easier for schools to fire poorly performing teachers.
"The tests are good because they show us where students are at, if they need help with anything," said Vicky Nevarez, whose son Jesse just graduated from high school in Murrieta, Calif. "His teachers were great and if there were problems, the tests let me know."
The polling results are good news for states looking to implement increased accountability standards and for those who want to hold teachers responsible for students' slipping standing against other countries' scores. Teachers unions have objected to linking educators' evaluations to student performance.
As students prepare to return to classrooms, the AP-NORC Center surveyed parents of students at all grade levels and found:
-- Sixty-one percent of parents think their children take an appropriate number of standardized tests and 26 percent think their children take too many tests.
--Teachers' fates shouldn't rest solely on test results, according to a majority of parents. Fifty-six percent said classroom observations should be part of teachers' evaluations, and 74 percent of all parents said they wanted districts to help struggling teachers.
-- Despite many Republicans' unrelenting criticism of the Common Core State Standards, in various stages of implementation in 45 states and the District of Columbia, 52 percent parents have heard little or nothing about the academic benchmarks and a third are unsure if they live in a state using them. Still, when given a brief description of what the standards do, about half of parents say educational quality will improve once the standards are implemented, 11 percent think it will get worse, and 27 percent say they'll have no effect.
-- Seventy-five percent of parents say standardized tests are a solid measure of their children's abilities, and 69 percent say such exams are a good measure of the schools' quality.
"We know when the tests are coming up. They spend a lot of time getting ready for them," said Rodney Land of Lansing, Mich.
His daughter, Selena, will be in eighth grade at a charter school this fall. The weights-and-measures inspector supports the testing because "it shows what they know, and what they should know."
"We need some way to keep track of whether the teachers are spending enough time educating," Land said.
Education union leaders have stood opposed to linking teacher evaluations with these tests, arguing it is unfair to punish teachers for students' shortcomings. They also say teachers have not had sufficient time to rewrite their lessons to reflect new academic benchmarks, such as those found in the Common Core.
When states have adopted the Common Core State Standards, which aim to provide consistent requirements across all states for math and English, test results often falter and the standards can make schools and teachers appear to be faring worse than they did the previous year.
Then, what to do with those test results?
A full 93 percent of parents say standardized tests should be used to identify areas where students need extra help. Smaller majorities think such tests should be used to measure school quality, evaluate teachers or determine whether or not students are promoted or can graduate.
At the same time, 72 percent of all parents said they want to make it easier for school districts to fire teachers who aren't getting the job done. That position had the strongest showing among white parents, 80 percent of whom favored the idea. About 6 in 10 Hispanic or black parents agreed.
That's not to say, though, that parents want to dismiss teachers immediately or leave them without a safety net, especially not new educators. Eighty-seven percent of all parents said they wanted districts to spend money to help new teachers.
For Julie Dorwart, a behavior therapist from Wilmington, N.C., making sure students do well with the material that's taught is important. Her son Matt, who is starting his freshman year of high school this fall, "really stressed out" about standardized tests but nonetheless performed well. She would prefer school officials evaluate students and teachers based on grades, not just universal tests.
"The schools make such a big deal about them and put so much emphasis on the (tests) that the kids freak out," she said.
Among parents who are also teachers or share a household with a teacher, the opinions shifted. Only about 3 in 10 in that group think changes in students' test scores should count in teacher evaluations. And 55 percent of households with teachers said standardized test scores in general should not be used to evaluate teachers.
"I think the biggest crime is that teaching has turned to focus on the tests, rather than the tests being a tool that help you understand. All the teaching and learning is on the subject being tested," said Abby Cohen, a 50-year-old teacher from Newton, Mass., a Boston suburb.
Her daughter, Isabel Snyder, is starting her senior year, and Cohen worries Isabel didn't get as much as she could have from the teachers because of the focus on testing.
"You have to ask how much you're straitjacketing the teachers," Cohen said.
The survey was sponsored by the Joyce Foundation, which works to promote policies that improve the quality of teachers, including the development of new teacher evaluation systems, enhance early reading reforms and encourage innovation in public schools.
The AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research survey was conducted June 21 through July 22. The nationally representative poll, conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago, involved landline and cellphone interviews in English or Spanish with 1,025 parents of children who completed grades K through 12 in the last school year. Results for the full sample have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4.1 percentage points; it is larger for subgroups.