Assessment

GAO Says Costs for State Tests All in How Questions Asked

By Alan Richard — May 21, 2003 4 min read

The costs of developing and administering state tests as required by the federal “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001 could reach $5.3 billion between 2002 and 2008, according to a government report.

Read the Report to Congressional Requesters on Title I, from the General Accounting Office. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

But whether or not Congress is providing enough money for states to meet the testing requirements depends on who’s doing the talking.

The figures were released last week in a report by the General Accounting Office that estimates what it will cost states to develop and administer tests to comply with the law. The No Child Left Behind Act requires states to have mathematics and language arts assessments in place for 3rd through 8th graders by the 2005-06 school year, and science tests in place by 2007-08.

The investigative arm of Congress contends in the report that current and future federal funding will be enough to help states meet the requirements, but only if states use simple multiple-choice tests that can be scored easily by machines.

The report estimates that the requirements will cost states $1.9 billion by 2008 if they use only multiple-choice tests. The figure jumps to $3.9 billion if states keep their current mix of questions, or $5.3 billion if other types of questions, such as essays, are expanded.

Most states are still developing the tests for all grades and subjects as required by the law. And many states use, or are planning to use, tests that include various question formats, not just multiple-choice.

Some in Congress pointed to the GAO report as proof that the federal government is doing its part to cover state costs.

“This report confirms what several private studies have already shown: Congress is providing more than enough money for states to meet the annual testing requirements in the No Child Left Behind Act, and education reform opponents have significantly exaggerated the actual cost,” U.S. Rep. John A. Boehner said in a statement. The Ohio Republican chairs the House Education and the Workforce Committee.

Singing a different tune, the National Association of State Boards of Education released its own report on the topic this month.

The Alexandria, Va.-based group estimates that, based on the funding goals of the No Child Left Behind law, federal funds would cover only about 69 percent of the testing costs associated with the law, which was signed by President Bush in January of last year and is now being implemented.

And while the GAO report uses the same 69 percent figure in its report, wrangling over the money issue rages on.

“Unfortunately, the entire issue has been politicized,” NASBE’s executive director, Brenda Welburn, said in a statement issued May 8. “However, we consider the GAO report as the definitive report on this issue.”

Still, if many states adopt tests with more than just multiple- choice questions, the costs will be considerable and will be a challenge for many states to afford, she said.

“The bottom line is that high-quality, aligned state assessments are expensive,” Ms. Welburn added in the statement. “To suggest, as some have, that stating this fact somehow makes you an opponent of assessments and accountability is absurd.”

Debates Ahead

The GAO report on testing costs is just the latest development in the long unfolding of the No Child Left Behind law, which is a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

The law demands much from state governments: testing in math and reading, new school accountability standards, test-score goals and interventions for schools that do not meet the goals, new rules for teacher credentials, and more. (“ESEA to Boost Federal Role in Education,” Jan. 9, 2002.)

As the U.S. Department of Education continues to review state plans for meeting the law’s accountability guidelines, debate over the costs of expanded state tests could heighten tensions between cash-strapped states and federal officials.

Debate over the costs of new state tests under the law may be “a precursor to a bigger discussion or debate over the general costs” of implementing the law, said David Griffith, a spokesman for NASBE.

The GAO report also found that:

  • The federal law is affecting how states test their students. More than two-thirds of states currently use a mix of multiple-choice and written- response questions, but that number may fall to about one-third when the new rules take hold. Twenty-five states told researchers that they don’t know what their tests will look like under the new law.
  • Many states will be required to expand the number of grades in which students are tested. Under the new law, 37 states will need to add at least seven grade-level or subject-area tests to their current slates. Ten states must add 13 or more exams, while five states don’t have to add any.
  • Federal funding under the law for additional state tests may easily help some states meet the requirements, but may fall way short in others. At current and projected levels, several states would receive only about half the funding they need to keep current types of test questions under the expanded system, including Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Michigan, New York, and Washington state. Others could see 150 percent of the funding they need, such as Alabama, the District of Columbia, and Tennessee.
  • The federal Education Department should facilitate more sharing of information about testing and related costs between states.

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