The Topline: Standardized Testing Unease; Boston Still Has a Little Irish in It

Americans uneasy with emphasis on standardized testing We do a lot of polling on education policy in Massachusetts, so we were not entirely surprised to see the results of a new Huffington Post/YouGov poll that found Americans have some concerns about the amount of emphasis schools place on standardized tests. The poll found:

  • 51 percent think K-12 students take too many standardized tests;
  • 59 percent think these tests do only a fair or poor job of measuring student achievement;
  • 46 percent think the way schools use tests has gotten worse over the past 10 years; and
  • 49 percent think testing over that period has done more harm than good.

Despite these findings, only 30 percent think students should be able to opt-out of tests, and only a third (34 percent) of parents of school-aged kids would let their own kids do so.

We have not asked exactly comparable questions here in Massachusetts, but we have detected a similar undercurrent of concern about the prevalence and uses of testing. Sixty-three percent of business leaders we surveyed about education policy in 2014 think there is too much emphasis on standardized tests. And when we asked parents that year what factors they looked for in picking a school, only 32 percent said “high scores on standardized tests” are very important to their decision, the lowest of any of the issues explored in the poll.

The stakes are high in Massachusetts, which is piloting a new standardized test called PARCC to replace the longstanding MCAS exam. Proponents of the new test say it is a better measure of critical thinking and real world skills, while critics argue it, and the Common Core standards to which it is aligned, do not compare well to the state’s previous education benchmarks. Public school principals see the new tests and frameworks as more demanding than what they are replacing, though they remain relatively uncertain about specific benefits of PARCC.

Standardized testing has been a core feature of the education reform that has made Massachusetts schools some of the best in the nation, and appears likely to remain so. But with the potential change to a new test, individuals and groups uncomfortable about any aspect of testing have an opportunity to air their concerns.


Massachusetts still “greenest” in nation, but Irish tide receding in Boston

It’s said that everyone is a little bit Irish on St. Patrick’s Day. But every year, the share of Americans who go back to being something else the next day is going up, according to an analysis of U.S. Census data by the Pew Research Center. In 1980, the first year the Census asked about ancestry, 15 percent of Americans self-identified as Irish. In the 2013 American Community Survey (ACS), that figure was down to 10.5 percent.

Massachusetts is ahead of the pack with a healthy 21.2 percent of the population claiming Irish ancestry, but Boston is seeing a slow decline in its Irish-descended population. The most recent ACS found 90,000 Bostonians with some Irish ancestry, or 14 percent of the city’s population and still the top ethnic origin. But both the total number and the percentage have both dropped slightly from 2000, when the Census found 93,000 with Irish roots, or 16 percent of a much smaller population.

Other races and ethnicities are fueling the growth that has increased the city’s overall population by nearly 10 percent over that period. Many speculated that this “New Boston” would show itself in the 2013 mayoral election, and some were disappointed when two white Irishmen made the final round. But the coalition that brought Mayor Marty Walsh to power did reflect the new diversity of the city. On Election Day, as on St. Patrick’s Day, Bostonians can all have a little Irish in them, and then go back to being the diverse mix that is transforming the city.


The Crosstabs:

Israeli Elections

It was a tough day for pollsters in Israel, with both pre-election polls and exit polls predicting a much closer result. It’s tough to figure out why, as HuffPollster explains:

“HuffPollster can barely begin to speculate about the reasons for failures in the exit and pre-election polls given the profound lack of transparency of their methods. Our pre-election review of poll articles published in both Hebrew and English found mention of nothing beyond survey dates, sample size and the "margin of error" for pre-election polls. Online reports in English featured even less methodological detail about Tuesday's exit poll results, which were broadcast on Israeli television.”


Bracketology has a list of things more likely to happen than you completing a perfect March Madness bracket. Among them is finding a five leaf clover on your first try.

Charlie Baker takes a crack at a perfect bracket and in the process confirms he is not running for president anytime soon. We’ll be keeping a close eye on his picks over the next few years for the telltale Iowa State, Florida, UVA, UNC Final Four.

Someone at Bloomberg put Presidential candidates in a March Madness-style bracket, compared them to college basketball teams, and provided a fairly disturbing set of Photoshopped images of the candidates in basketball attire.


2016 Elections

It’s still way too early to take much from the 2016 polls. But this is a polling and data newsletter, so here goes.

A new CNN poll also found Hillary Clinton’s negatives on the rise in the wake of her personal email flap last week. But the same poll showed she still holds a commanding lead over potential Republican rivals, with the nearest contender still trailing her by 11 points.

Clinton is still way ahead of other potential contenders in the Democratic primary. On the Republican side, Jeb Bush holds a nominal lead in a tightly clustered Republican pack.

Meanwhile, HuffPost’s YouGov found Democrats and Republicans predictably polarized on the matter of Clinton’s use of personal email.

Attention politicos: Charlie Cook has set his early betting lines for 2016. Cook also looks at the uphill battle facing Bush, who has surprisingly high unfavorables for a first-time candidate.


National Politics

Both Democrats and Republicans support the Obama administration’s negotiations with Iran, according to a CNN/ORC poll.

One third of Louisiana Republicans blame Barack Obama, who was a freshman U.S. Senator at the time, for the response to Hurricane Katrina.

Polarization is at an all-time high by almost any measure. But a study finds that online town halls may be a way to improve political discourse between lawmakers and constituents.


The News

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, consider us flattered by the Globe’s weekend story about commuter rail statistics, following our previous Topline on the same issue. Considering this is at least the third time -- compare this to this and this to this -- we guess the Globe is a fan.

Millennials are getting their news from the Facebooks and the Twitters.

Time-waster alert: Pew has created an interactive feature where you can toggle through 40 different countries’ views on a battery of moral issues.


On the Issues

Support for gay marriage has jumped an amazing 45 points since it was first asked as part of the respected General Social Survey, in 1988. Most social opinions hold steady or change very slowly over time.

This version of the GSS, conducted by AP and NORC, found confidence in all three branches of government and the media at record lows. Lack of confidence in institutions is a defining feature of current public opinion.

As an example, both whites and blacks lack confidence in juries and the criminal justice system, writes Roper Center’s Kathleen Weldon on HuffPost. But there is a persistent racial gap on confidence in the police.

Meanwhile, CNN finds that four in ten think race relations have worsened during the Obama presidency.


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Happy first anniversary under The Worldwide Leader, FiveThirtyEight! One recent highlight from the past year: the team nerding out over a YouGov poll that found that Republicans think they are more likely to survive the apocalypse than Democrats or Independents.

Beer geeks overwhelmingly prefer bourbon barrels for aging their ales. The headscratcher: who thought it was a good idea to age beer in a tequila barrel?