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Testing Places Only a 'Modest' Burden On Students, G.A.O. Report Concludes

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WASHINGTON--Despite fears that American students are "overtested,'' testing places only a "modest'' burden of time on schools and costs less than other reports have indicated, a study by the General Accounting Office concludes.

And based on its findings, the study estimates that a national examination system would cost between $160 million and $330 million a year, considerably less than the $3 billion per year some analysts have estimated. The report also suggests that the actual amount would probably be even less because many districts would replace their current tests with the national exam.

The study, presented to Congress last month, found that, in 1990-91, students spent, on average, less than seven hours a year on testing, including learning test-taking skills and listening to test instructions and results. Each test cost an average of $15 per student, for a total of $516 million. However, the report notes, the amount of testing and the cost were considerably greater in some states and school districts.

A 1990 study by the National Commission on Testing and Public Policy concluded that 20 million school days a year--about half a day per student--were devoted just to taking tests, and that testing cost taxpayers between $725 million and $915 million annually.

"At least on average, and considering only systemwide tests, students do not seem to have been overly tested,'' the G.A.O. report states. "Thus, an argument that a national examination system should be opposed on those grounds demands other evidence than what we found.''

But it also acknowledges that many test directors surveyed expressed opposition to a national system, a finding it says "should give pause'' to national-testing advocates.

Walter Haney, a senior research fellow at the center for the study of testing, evaluation, and educational policy at Boston College and a staff member of the national commission, said the G.A.O. report tends to underestimate the indirect costs--in teacher and student time--testing exacts.

He also questioned the report's estimate for a proposed national system.

"The ideas for a national program are so amorphous,'' Mr. Haney said, "it's pure guesswork to come up with a figure.''

'Systemwide' Tests Studied

The new report, "Student Testing,'' is based on surveys administered to the 50 state testing directors and to local administrators in 500 school districts.

The surveys examined only "systemwide'' tests, which the agency defined as those administered to every student, almost every student, or a representative sample of all students in at least one grade level in a district or state. Such tests excluded those administered to special populations; optional tests, including college-admission tests; and many tests used for Chapter 1 evaluation.

The survey found a wide range in time burden and cost.

Counting the cost of administering a test and personnel costs associated with testing, the study found that cost figures ranged from $1 per student test to over $90 for each test.

As expected, the study notes that performance-based tests cost considerably more than multiple-choice tests. In the six states that use both types, the study found that the performance tests cost twice as much: $33 per student, on average, compared with $16 per student for the multiple-choice tests.

Using those estimates, the report projects that a national performance-based exam involving 10 million students--one that tested students in three grade levels, as many national proposals recommend--would cost $330 million a year, plus $100 million in one-time development costs.

But the study also notes that district officials tended to drop their tests when state-mandated tests that were similar to their own were imposed. The report estimates that about half of districts would keep their old tests if a new national performance-based exam were introduced, yielding from $193 million to $209 million in new costs and about 30 minutes in student time per year.

Copies of the report are available from the U.S. General Accounting Office, P.O. Box 6015, Gaithersburg, Md. 20877; (202) 275-6241. Single copies are free; additional copies cost $2 each.

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