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Romano: Jeb Bush wants parents to have choices — but not when it comes to testing

For Jeb Bush, it has long been a reliable applause line.

Details may change from audience to audience, but the typical Bush speech eventually winds around to the idea that parents deserve a voice in the education of children.

It's a populist-sounding concept, but there comes a time when rhetoric must meet reality. And, based on a new poll, Bush is the one not listening to what parents want.

The PDK/Gallup poll on public schools has been measuring American attitudes on education since 1969. The latest poll seems to confirm what grass roots parents groups have been shouting about for quite some time:

There's too much high-stakes testing in schools.

When Bush talks about parental choice, he's pushing the idea of using tax dollars to create more charter schools or vouchers for private schools. Yet, when it comes to standardized tests and all of their ramifications assigned by politicians, he sees no room for choice or compromise for these same parents.

"I don't want to generalize too much,'' said Maria Ferguson, the executive director of the Center on Education Policy at George Washington University, "but a lot of the charter and voucher crowd only support choice if you're making the same choice they are."

The Gallup poll results are not exactly shocking — they've been trending in this direction for several years — but they point out just how tone-deaf our leaders are.

When asked if there is 1) too much emphasis on testing, 2) the correct amount of emphasis or 3) not enough emphasis, the numbers were overwhelming. A total of 67 percent of public school parents said there was too much emphasis on testing, which was more than double the other two answers combined.

Similarly, standardized tests finished last (14 percent) in the poll for importance among six different ways to measure a public school. The tests were also last (16 percent) when asked whether student work (37), teacher observation (25) or teacher grades (22) were the best way to measure a student's progress.

What's interesting is that parents were once fully behind the idea of standardized tests. In the 1970 poll, 75 percent of parents liked the idea of a national test to measure performance.

So have parents become anti-testers in 2015?

I don't think so. I think they've become anti-political.

By that, I mean parents are fed up because politicians have assigned so much weight to these tests that they have perverted the intent. School boards, administrators and teachers cater the entire academic year around these tests because politicians have turned them into an educational witch hunt.

"The irony is the tests today are so much better than the ones that were used in 1970," Ferguson said. "They really are wonderful diagnostic tools to inform teachers of a student's progress, but today they're viewed more as a punishment.

"The tests aren't the problem; it's the politics and policies."

The sad part is all of these ideas should be able to co-exist. We should encourage charter schools (favored by 64 percent of Gallup respondents) and vouchers (favored by 33 percent). And we should use standardized tests, but more as a guide and not the gospel.

If Bush and other reformers were truly interested in parental choice, they would actually start listening to parents.

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