New poll: Safe and positive school environment more important than higher test scores

Credit: Alison Yin / EdSource (2014)Credit: Alison Yin / EdSource (2014)In evaluating school performance, registered voters in California say creating a safe and positive school environment is far more important than higher scores on standardized tests, according to a Berkeley IGS/EdSource poll.
Voters also express considerable concerns about bullying, school fights and other forms of intimidation or violence on school campuses, along with harassment that students experience through social media.
These are among the principal findings of the poll to be released Thursday at EdSource’s 40th anniversary symposium in Oakland.
The poll reveals strong voter support for school districts to devote more funds and resources to address the needs of the state’s most vulnerable students, a central theme of this year’s symposium. In particular, voters feel strongly that schools should do more to support homeless children as well as those whose family members are threatened with deportation as a result of current heightened federal immigration enforcement policies.
For a special EdSource report on homeless children in California, go here. 
The statewide online survey was administered in English and Spanish to 1,200 registered voters, including an oversampling of parents with school-age children, in late August and early September 2017.
Four years ago, in adopting the Local Control Funding Formula championed by Gov. Jerry Brown, the Legislature required that school performance be measured not only by standardized test scores but by a range of other indicators of performance.
By a margin of 57 percent in favor to 29 percent against, voters statewide say they support this “multiple measure” approach when evaluating schools. Parents with school-age children feel slightly more strongly, with 60 percent in favor and 27 percent against.
But there are sharp differences by party: Democrats favor de-emphasizing tests 71 to 18 percent, while Republicans are nearly split, 44 percent in favor to 43 percent opposed. Unaffiliated voters support the state policy 47 to 33 percent.
Education leaders and advocates say the poll results confirm what they are observing in local communities, especially in those where students and parents may have felt marginalized to some degree.
“It’s really consistent with what we’ve been hearing in the field and consistent with our conversations with parents,” said Jennifer O’Day, a fellow with the American Institutes of Research and chair of the California Collaborative on District Reform. “Parents aren’t as focused on test scores as people think. It is a response to the past decade-plus, where so much emphasis has been placed on test scores, a lot of people think, to the detriment of the systems overall, and to their kids.”
After being randomly read eight priorities for evaluating schools, voters ranked them in order of “high importance”:
Creating a safe and positive school environment (74 percent);
Higher graduation rates (65 percent)
Preparing kids to enter the workforce right after high school (62 percent)
Preparing kids for college (61 percent)
Encouraging greater parental involvement in their child’s school (58 percent)
Higher attendance rates (53 percent)
At the bottom:
Higher scores on standardized tests (33 percent)
Lower suspension rates (29 percent)
Parents largely express the same priorities, except that they rank preparing students for college second in importance, compared to fourth among all voters. Like all voters, parents ranked a positive school climate as the most important priority.
“For the families we serve, a welcoming environment and the community of the school always comes out as number one when we ask what families want from their school,” said Oscar Cruz, president of the Los-Angeles based nonprofit Families in Schools. “It’s not like they’re saying, ‘We don’t care about test scores.’ But, for families that have felt pushed out or are feeling not welcome, it’s very pressing for them to say, ‘We don’t feel we’re welcome here. How can we support student achievement if our presence is not even wanted?’ ”
The poll also found that 60 percent of voters and 67 percent of parents of school-age children say they are very or somewhat concerned about the impact of stricter immigration policies on students whose families are threatened with deportation. More than half of voters and nearly two-thirds of parents support devoting more resources — such as counseling, mental health referrals and assistance in getting legal services — to help these students.
Among other findings:
Nearly eight in 10 voters view bullying, school fights and other forms of intimidation or violence to be a very serious (38 percent) or a somewhat serious problem (39 percent) in their community schools. And about equal percentages of voters view harassment through social media as a very serious or somewhat serious problem as well. Just shy of half of voters from low-income households view these as very serious problems, compared with 28 percent of households with incomes exceeding $100,000.
Voters say it’s very important to commit additional money to student groups needing help: homeless students (64 percent agree), foster children (50 percent agree) and English learners (49 percent). These groups are already receiving additional funding under the Local Control Funding Formula. In addition, 63 percent said more money should be devoted to special education students.
Nearly seven in 10 voters statewide believe is it very important for public schools to put greater emphasis on workforce preparation for high school students who may not go to college. One-fourth of voters view this as somewhat important, while just 3 percent say it’s not important.
While generally supportive of California’s current reform efforts, 75 percent of voters statewide say districts should be required to provide more detail and reports on how they are spending state funds, especially those intended for low-income students and English learners. Republicans are slightly less supportive of requiring more reporting by school districts, with 67 percent agreeing that they should compared with 83 percent of Democrats in favor.
“The poll shows what we have long advocated for — using multiple measures in our accountability system is the right way to go — and, we believe, to truly support our most vulnerable kids,” said Samantha Tran, senior managing director of education for  Children Now. “But we have to also make sure that all of that information is comparable across schools and districts and clearly shows if gaps in achievement are actually closing or not.”
The Berkeley IGS Poll, based at UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies, conducted the poll in partnership with EdSource. Respondents were drawn from a statewide YouGov Internet panel, with an estimated margin of error of +/-4 percent for the overall sample. The characteristics of those polled approximated the demographic profile of the state’s overall registered voter population.
The full poll results can be found  here.
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