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USC Rossier professor reflects on student testing poll

Morgan Polikoff, assistant professor at the USC Rossier School of Education (Photo/Steve Cohn)

Morgan Polikoff, assistant professor at the USC Rossier School of Education, weighed in on the results of a Policy Analysis for California Education/USC Rossier Poll revealing that voters want more student testing and greater accountability for teachers.

Andrea Bennett: What are your thoughts on the findings that voters want more testing, and in every subject? Could this be implemented in schools?

Morgan Polikoff: I was surprised by the level of support for testing, given some of the backlash that’s featured in the media. However, our results largely match up with the recent Associated Press poll. Taken together, the results suggest to me that parents and voters value real, quantifiable outcomes of schools. They also understand that the obsessive focus on mathematics and English has led to detrimental consequences in terms of teacher coverage of other subjects. I view this result as a call for expanding the desired outcomes of schools and retooling our measurement and accountability systems to account for the fact that math and reading scores aren’t the only outcomes that matter. As to whether expanded measures will be implemented, that’s a question of will and resources. If I were designing a new assessment and accountability system, however, it is the first thing I would change.

AB: What are your thoughts on the desire of 80 percent of voters to use student test scores in teacher evaluations?

MP: Again, voters have a focus on quantifiable measures of student performance. This is important, but at the same time we can’t let the desire to include student learning measures outstrip the technical and practical challenges with such systems. Measures currently being implemented in states and districts have highly questionable statistical properties, and that’s something parents and voters might not know just yet. This doesn’t mean that we can’t move forward with better evaluation systems, but rather that we need to be very thoughtful and deliberate as to how these systems are designed. Putting in place bad systems may be worse than having no evaluation system at all (which is what we have essentially had for decades).

AB: Your thoughts on voters favoring local control over school performance? What are the policy implications of this finding?

MP: On the one hand, voters favor local control. On the other hand, they favor more state-run testing. This is a bit of a conundrum. While I am by no means an advocate for school choice, one implication of these findings might be that parents want more flexibility and authority in exchange for continued or increased accountability. This might point the way toward choice-based models of education reform.

AB: How do you explain the lack of voter awareness of state education policies in the last year? How might public awareness increase?

MP: Policymakers and advocates simply need to do a better job getting out in the media and explaining new policies, why they were created and what they are supposed to do. Large majorities of people don’t know about the local control funding formula or the Common Core [State Standards Initiative]. Thus, there is a real opportunity to shape public opinion on these policies in the short run. Awareness will increase as implementation rolls on, but education policy will likely always be on the wonkier side among major public policy issues.

AB: Why are voters slightly more optimistic about public schools today than they were a year ago?

MP: From where I sit, education has been improving incrementally for quite a while now. Most research suggests kids are learning more than they used to. Of course, we have many challenges — achievement gaps foremost among them — but I think voters are picking up on the real progress that has been made.

AB: Did any of the results surprise you?

MP: In some sense, yes — I continue to be struck by the level of support for assessment among voters. Given that anti-testing advocates have become much more organized and vocal, I was expecting the tide to have turned a bit on this issue. In another sense, no — our results are largely in line with other polls that have asked similar questions, suggesting that we have a pretty good handle on where the voters are with regard to these policies.

AB: What results did you find most worrisome? Encouraging?

MP: I found the low level of public knowledge about the Common Core both expected and worrisome. Given all the misinformation that’s out there about the standards, I am concerned that there is an opportunity for Common Core opponents to shape the discussion in an unhelpful way. I am hopeful that, as the standards are rolled out in the schools, awareness and satisfaction with the standards will increase.

I was most encouraged by the level of support for including outcomes outside of mathematics and English Language Arts in evaluation and accountability. This is the most fundamental change that needs to be made to accountability systems, and it seems voters are aware of the problem.

AB: How is your research (or the research of USC Rossier) impacting the issues that matter to voters?

MP: We have a good deal of research on issues of school and teacher accountability at USC Rossier, and these results clearly indicate that there is popular support for these kinds of policies moving forward. For instance, I am doing work on the design of school accountability systems under federal law, and I’ve also written a brief proposing a revamp of the state’s school accountability formula. I have also done some work on the technical properties of new teacher evaluation systems, and other faculty — Katharine Strunk and Julie Marsh — are working on teacher evaluation policies as they are implemented. Our scholarly interests position the school well to contribute to important debates about the design and effectiveness of these policies moving forward.

Read Polikoff’s blog post about the poll at

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USC Rossier professor reflects on student testing poll

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