As the nation endures its sputtering recovery, significant cuts to state and local education budgets continue to dominate headlines. With bruising fights over tenure, pensions, and collective bargaining, educators fear that these cuts may shrink educator jobs and benefits for years to come.
Within this context, though, it is testing that has emerged as the real villain. In protest blogs, op-eds, and tweets, critics rail against “billions and billions” spent on assessment, arguing that if only we stopped testing, teachers’ jobs, art classes, sports, school nurses, librarians, small classes, and more would be saved.
But while testing can’t solve our educational problems, all this vitriol obscures another important reality: Testing consumes just a tiny portion of education budgets. While states vary considerably in the amount, type, and quality of their testing programs, no state comes even close to spending 1 percent of total per-pupil expenditures on testing. A 2010 study by the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education, or SCOPE, which is led by the respected professor Linda Darling-Hammond, noted that in per-pupil terms, testing costs “substantially less than that of a new textbook, a typical student’s school supplies for the year, or almost any educational intervention.” A random sample of states, small and large, confirms SCOPE’s findings.
For example, California, the country’s largest and most financially distressed state, spends less than $14 out of its $8,955 per-pupil total educational outlay on statewide standardized testing. These costs, which include testing contracts and administration for not only federally mandated tests in reading and math but also high school exit exams and state tests in science and history, are dwarfed by spending on such items as workers’-compensation insurance, housekeeping services, and travel.
Compared With Total Education Spending
SOURCE: Chart provided by author based on data from state budgets and departments of education; most recent year available.
Even if the California figures underestimate various expenditures related to testing, such as preparation materials or personnel, testing is still a drop in the budget bucket. For the sake of argument, let’s double the amount spent on testing to $28 per student, or about .03 percent of the budget. Under this scenario, the state’s schools still spend 265 times as much on salaries and benefits.
To be sure, some of the scorn for current state testing practices is well deserved. Today’s tests do not assess all that they should. They rely heavily on multiple-choice questions and measure only a portion of the skills and knowledge outlined in state educational standards. Nor do they align well with what we know about how students learn. As a result, at a time when students are tested more than ever—and test results are used to make critical judgments about the performance of schools, teachers, and students—our testing methods don’t serve our educational system nearly as well as they should. Every education dollar and, importantly, each instructional minute matter. And even modest investments, if made poorly, can turn out to be worthless.
Moreover, many accountability advocates overstate what testing can do. They forget that while large-scale summative assessments can be used to make judgments and describe what a student has learned over time, they aren’t meant to guide day-to-day teaching and learning. And, all too often, other critical aspects of reform, such as the support needed to improve teaching and learning, are overlooked.
While testing can't solve out educational problems, all this vitriol obscures another important reality: Testing consumes just a tiny portion of education budget."
But the constant drumbeat against test expenditures only serves to stifle investment in the very sorts of high-quality assessments that most educators deeply desire. Illinois, for example, has cut its spending on testing, but only by scrapping its writing exams. By contrast, one of the reasons that testing is so expensive in Washington state is that the state offers a costly “collection of evidence,” or portfolio, option for students to pass its high school graduation exam. The same Stanford study found that even after applying numerous cost-saving measures, such as working together to share expenses, leveraging online technology, and using teacher-led test scoring, states could still expect to spend around $21 per pupil to develop high-quality assessments—as much as or slightly more than most do now.
Right now, two different consortia—the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, and the smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium—representing 45 states and the District of Columbia, are making decisions that will determine the fate of the next generation of federally mandated state assessments. One of the most critical decisions regards cost. Currently, states run their own testing programs with vastly differing levels of cost and quality. But in each assessment consortium, states will be administering the same tests and must jointly agree on expenditure levels.
Data from PARCC, compiled on a “cost per test” basis to standardize costs across states, show how difficult these decisions may be. While the median cost per test among 22 PARCC states is $14.42, actual state spending ranges from $4.93 to $30.62 per test. Lower-spending states will be reluctant to increase their spending. And both consortia, seeking consensus among their members, will be under extreme pressure to meet their demands. If this happens, states might spend less money on testing, but pay the high nonfinancial costs, such as a misguided focus on low-level instruction, of lower-quality assessments.
The country is sure to continue its efforts to gauge objectively the educational progress of its students. But there are no shortcuts to the better assessments we need. Critics of standardized testing face a difficult choice: They can continue to rail against the costs of testing, or they can work to significantly improve both the practice and process of large-scale student assessment. They can’t do both.
A version of this article appeared in the October 12, 2011 edition of Education Week as The Truth About Testing Costs