Poll: Minnesotans suspicious of NCLB


No Child Left Behind continues to draw suspicion. A new Minnesota 2020 poll shows 55 percent of Minnesotans say NCLB forces schools to emphasize standardized tests instead of the needs of students.

The poll results come as no surprise to education experts.

“I don’t think its surprising people have concerns about NCLB,” said Edina Public Schools Superintendent Ric Dressen. “A federal program imposed over local schools is unmanageable.”

NCLB, signed into law by Congress in 2002, provides more than $26 billion each year for states to develop academic standards, test students according to those standards, and hold schools accountable for student test scores.

In the Minnesota 2020 poll — conducted between Feb. 4 and 10 and released last week — 800 respondents were asked if they agree with NCLB supporters who say the law brings accountability to local schools, or NCLB opponents who say the law forces local schools to emphasize standardized tests instead of the needs of the individual child.

Fifty five percent said they agree with opponents – 38 percent strongly agreeing – while 36 percent back the supporters – 18 percent strongly agreeing.

The poll shows the greatest opposition to NCLB comes from well educated and middle-class Minnesotans:

* 69 percent of those with a post-graduate degree, 54 percent of college graduates, 55 percent of those with some college and 47 percent of those without a college education oppose the law;

* 64 percent of those who earn between $35,000 and $75,000 oppose NCLB, 50 percent of those who make under $35,000, and 52 percent of those who earn more than $75,000 oppose the law;

* 62 percent of union households oppose NCLB;

* 62 percent of DFL voters oppose NCLB, as well as 54 percent of independents and 43 percent of Republicans.

NCLB requires schools to conduct one test to measure reading skills and another to measure math skills. Schools must raise scores for all groups of students: whites, blacks, Hispanics, the disabled, limited English speakers and others. Ninety five percent of students in each subgroup must take the test or the school fails. Most have to pass the test or the school fails. Failure results in increasingly draconian punishments ultimately leading to state or private takeover of the school.

Parents and teachers say increased accountability is good, as is the focus NCLB puts on minority student education. But NCLB has perverted the process to include goals that are impossible to meet, basing those goals on a test that doesn’t truly measure student ability or growth, and forcing schools to meet those goals by teaching to the test rather than to locally developed curricula.

Dressen said NCLB’s ultimate goal — 100 percent of all students passing the tests by 2014 – is unrealistic. Schools will, however, be held accountable for the results and punished.

In January, Sen. David Hann (R-Eden Prairie) and several other lawmakers called for Minnesota to opt out of NCLB, saying it takes away local control of schools.

Congress sends about $250 million to Minnesota each year to administer NCLB. Losing that money is a problem, Hann said, but cutting waste in education could more than make up for any deficit. “We spend far too much on pay and benefits. We need to be more efficient and deploy our assets for maximum results,” he added.

Hann has authored a bill to require the state to opt out of NCLB, but it has not been heard in the legislature.

Other surveys have shown the distaste many feel for NCLB. A February survey conducted by Macalester College for Minnesota 2020 found only 13 percent of teachers believe NCLB has improved education. Almost 90 percent said they were under unfair pressure to improve test scores, 88 percent said NCLB has caused teachers to ignore aspects of the curriculum, and more than 65 percent said NCLB forces teachers to focus on some students at the expense of others.

While many officials tout NCLB’s benefits, the groundswell of opposition has forced changes in the law. On March 18 in St. Paul, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings outlined a program that will allow 10 states to tailor punishment of schools that fail to meet NCLB’s performance targets.

Although Spellings announced the program in ceremonies that included Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Sen. Norm Coleman, Minnesota does not qualify for the program and won’t see any benefit from it.

NCLB is up for renewal, but Congress has yet to reach an agreement. Without congressional action, the existing law remains in place.

The Minnesota 2020 poll also revealed that only 39 percent of Minnesotans believe the state is headed on the right track; education is a main issue of concern for most respondents, along with health care, jobs and taxes; 54 percent think politicians focus on issues not central to Minnesota’s future; 30 percent said Pawlenty’s “no new taxes” pledge is too extreme while 27 percent said it is the right approach.

The survey polled a random statewide sample of 500 adults, plus an oversample of 300 additional outstate residents. The total was weighted to an effective sample of 500 interviews, 275 from the Twin Cities area and 225 from Greater Minnesota. The maximum margin of sampling error for a 95 percent level of confidence in the findings was 4.4 percentage points plus or minus.