Latino voters consider California's standardized tests an important measure of student growth and school performance, according to a new poll that shows the state's largest minority group also feels strongly about teacher accountability and investing additional dollars in public education.
A majority of Latino voters, 55%, said mandatory exams improve public education in the state by gauging student progress and providing teachers with vital information. Nearly the same percentage of white voters said such exams are harmful because they force educators to narrow instruction and don't account for different styles of learning.
The contrast between Latino and white voters offered by the USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll also plays out in the frequency of testing in public schools. Only 23% of Latinos said students were tested too much, compared with 44% of white voters.
For Marianna Sanchez, who has six children in pre-kindergarten through fifth grade, standardized testing offers the assurance that her children are learning the skills they need to pursue college and enter the workforce.
Sanchez, who has dyslexia, said frustration led her to drop out as she struggled to keep up in high school. The Fresno-area homemaker and her husband, a farmworker, want more for their children.
"They're testing them so we can know what they're learning, if they are learning anything, and if they're at the standards they need to be at to transfer eventually to a university," Sanchez said. "We want to know that they know what they're doing when they get there and if the teachers are actually teaching them what they need to be taught."
Latinos make up a majority of California's more than 6 million public school children. In the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second-largest system in the country, three out of four students are Latino.
Roberta Salin, a white voter in Los Angeles County, said standardized testing has created a culture at schools that focuses on learning basic knowledge and neglects other relevant material because it is not included in exams.
"Do we need testing? Of course we do, but not the way it's done now," said Salin, a retired information technology director. "I have two sons who graduated and went to college, but they'll be the first to tell you that they didn't learn history until they got to college because everything [in high school] is geared toward the next test."
Nationally, standardized testing has come under increasing criticism from some lawmakers, parents and educators who argue that the mandated exams are excessive and siphon away time that should go toward instruction. Supporters say exams are necessary to assess student progress, teacher performance and measure the effectiveness of schools and districts.
Socioeconomic status contributes to opinions on standardized testing and attitudes toward public schools, according to a bipartisan team of pollsters.
Latino voters who did not attend college favor such exams by 21 percentage points; 11 percentage points separate college-educated Latinos who believe the exams help from those who say they hurt public education.
"Once a family has achieved a certain level of financial success, they have the luxury of worrying about their children's stress levels," said Dan Schnur, head of USC's Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics. "For families who haven't yet made it, they see the stress that comes with testing as an acceptable trade-off in order to more precisely measure progress."
Minorities have a stronger preference than white voters for providing additional financial support to schools and preserving teacher tenure, but the poll of 1,504 registered voters shows they also expect accountability.
Tasha Welton, who is African American, said she comes from a family of educators and believes teachers should get tenure, but the 37-year-old Los Angeles mother of two said it should not prevent ineffective instructors from being fired for poor performance.
"Teachers get complacent, and there is no accountability, so they kind of do what they want because they think parents don't care. I care," said Welton, an executive assistant at a venture capital firm. "There is no way my kid is going to be prepared for college unless [teachers] do a little bit better."
Welton represents the nuanced views of minority voters on teacher seniority and tenure.
Minorities agreed overwhelmingly with white voters that performance, not seniority, should be the most important factor in determining teacher layoffs during budget crises.
Seniority also lagged behind a range of measures when voters were asked to prioritize options that could help determine teacher pay. Fewer than half of Asian voters and a slim majority, 53%, of white voters considered it significant for salary considerations. Nearly 70% of black and Latino voters said experience was an important factor.
Whereas a majority of voters support some form of teacher tenure, 45% of white voters do not believe educators should get that status at all, compared with 31% of Asian voters, 25% of Latinos and 17% of African Americans.
Dave Kanevsky of American Viewpoint, the Republican half of the bipartisan team that conducted the poll, said the results point to differences in what he refers to as "old California and new California."
White and older voters tend to believe schools are worsening, while minorities and younger voters are more optimistic about the direction of schools. But beyond that optimism, minority communities want to see improvement, Kanevsky said.
"Race and socioeconomic status are so highly tied together that your new emerging communities, which are a little more downscale, are so much more invested in a better education system," Kanevsky said. "They're not really satisfied with what they're getting, so they are willing to try new things, whether that's more testing to make sure that kids are learning, whether that's reforming teacher tenure or judging teachers not solely on testing but more on testing progress measurements and less on seniority."
Nearly half of voters surveyed said publicly funded, independently run charter schools offer a higher-quality education than traditional public schools. Still, a majority of white voters, 56%, believe the state should invest in improving existing schools instead of spending additional money to create more charters. Minority voters held on to that belief more strongly, with support between 67% and 69%.
Eight out of 10 black and Latino voters said putting more money into schools in economically or socially disadvantaged areas would improve the quality of public education somewhat or a lot, compared with 68% of white voters.
About half of white voters, 49%, believed extending recent tax increases would improve schools at least somewhat. That number jumped to 59% for black voters and 62% for Latino voters.
"There is a growing divide socioeconomically in California that is getting bigger, wider and scarier, frankly," said Michael Madrid, a fellow at USC's Unruh Institute and a Republican political consultant. "The one thing that is clear is Latinos, specifically that demographic, is looking for more investment in the public school system in terms of more resources, more money. And that will likely be the strongest base of support if there is an extension or another measure is placed in front of voters."
Drew Lieberman of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, a Democratic firm that helped conduct the poll, said the differences between minority voters and white voters are notable but should not detract from the larger message, which is they want to see an all-encompassing approach to public education.
"What you see here is consensus that 'we're open to trying new things. We want accountability, we're open to these reforms, but at the end of the day, we need to make an investment in our traditional public schools. We're not willing to let those become extinct,' " Lieberman said.
The poll of registered state voters was conducted by telephone March 28 through April 7 for the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and the Los Angeles Times. The margin of error is 2.7 percentage points in either direction, and higher for subgroups.