PARCC Test Cost: Higher for Nearly Half the States

By Catherine Gewertz — July 22, 2013 6 min read
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PARCC summative tests in mathematics and English/language arts will cost member states $29.50 per student, more than what half its member states currently pay for their tests, according to figures released today.

The new tests being designed by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, are priced just below the $29.95 median level of spending on summative tests in those two subjects in the consortium’s 20 member states. The cost estimates for the PARCC tests were posted today on its website.

The cost of tests being designed by PARCC and the other state testing group, the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, are a topic of intense interest now as states try to decide their testing plans for 2014-15. That’s when the new tests designed by each group are scheduled to be operational.

States are grappling with how to build support for different tests, something that can be difficult even without a price increase. But for almost half the states in PARCC, and one-third in Smarter Balanced, that job is even tougher since the tests will cost more than what they’re currently spending.

Smarter Balanced issued its pricing estimates in March, and its officials said they are less expensive than what two-thirds of its 24 member states currently spend per student on summative tests.

Unlike PARCC, Smarter Balanced broke its cost into two options for states: One option, priced at $22.50 per student, would include only its summative tests. The other, which includes summative tests as well as interim and formative tests, costs $27.30 per student.

Different Pricing Models

Smarter Balanced also has a different model of services than PARCC. In Smarter Balanced’s model, the consortium is responsible for providing some services, such as developing test items and the test-administration platform, and producing standardized reports of results. States are responsible for others, including delivering the assessment, providing help-desk services, and, in particular, scoring the tests. (In PARCC, the consortium, rather than individual states, will score the tests, according to PARCC spokesman Chad Colby.)

Smarter Balanced states could opt to score their tests in various ways, such as hiring a vendor or training and paying teachers as scorers, or combining those methods. Smarter Balanced will design scoring guidelines intended to make scoring consistent, said Tony Alpert, the consortium’s chief operating officer.

Smarter Balanced’s cost projections include both the cost of the services that the consortium will provide and the costs of the services the states will provide themselves or through vendors.

Here’s how Smarter Balanced test costs break down:

• For the “basic system” (only summative tests):
Total per-student cost of $22.50 = $6.20 (consortium services) + $16.30 (state-managed services)

• For the “complete system” (summative, interim and formative tests):
Total per-student cost of $27.30 = $9.55 (consortium services) + $17.75 (state-managed services)

PARCC’s pricing includes only the two pieces of its summative tests: its performance-based assessment, which is given about three-quarters of the way through the school year, and its end-of-year test, given about 90 percent of the way through the school year.

Its price does not include three tests that PARCC is also designing: a test of speaking and listening skills, which states are required to give but don’t have to use for federal accountability; an optional midyear exam; and an optional diagnostic test given at the beginning of the school year. Pricing for those tests will be issued later, according to Colby.

If states want to give paper-and-pencil versions of the PARCC tests, which will be available for at least the first year of its administration, that will cost $3 to $4 per student more, according to a frequently-asked-questions document prepared by the consortium.

Smarter Balanced’s computer-adaptive assessment and its performance tasks are given during the last 12 weeks of the school year. Its interim test and formative tools, if states choose to purchase the package that includes them, can be used anytime schools and teachers wish.

A Value Proposition?

States vary widely in what they spend for assessment, so they find themselves in varied positions politically as they contemplate moving to new tests.

Figures compiled for the two consortia’s federal grant applications in 2010 show that in the Smarter Balanced consortium, some states paid as little as $9 per student (North Carolina) for math and English/language arts tests, while others paid as much as $63.50 (Delaware) and $69 (Maine). One state, Hawaii, reported spending $116 per student.

In the PARCC consortium, per-student, combined costs for math and English/language arts tests ranged from $10.70 (Georgia) to $61.24 (Maryland), with a median of $27.78.

Comparing what one state spends on tests to what another spends—and comparing current spending to what PARCC or Smarter Balanced tests could cost—is difficult for many reasons. One is that states bundle their test costs differently. Some states’ cost figures include scoring the tests; others do not. Some states’ figures include tests in other subjects, such as science. Some states’ figures lack a subject that the two consortia’s tests will cover: writing.

Most states’ tests are primarily or exclusively multiple choice, which are cheaper to administer and score. Some give more constructed-response or essay questions, making the tests costlier to score but of greater value in gauging student understanding, many educators believe.

The two consortia are keenly aware that states might find it difficult to win support for the new tests if they represent increases in cost or test-taking time. They are taking pains to point out what they see as the value their tests will add compared with current state tests.

A Power Point presentation assembled by PARCC, for instance, notes that its tests will offer separate reading and writing scores at every grade level, something few state tests currently do. It says educators will get test results from its end-of-year and performance-based tests by the end of the school year, while in many states, it’s common for test results to come back in summer, and even, in some cases, the following fall. Echoing an argument its officials have made for many months, the PARCC presentation says that its tests will be “worth taking,” since the questions will be complex and engaging enough to be viewed as “extensions of quality coursework.”

It also seeks to make the point that $29.50 isn’t a lot to spend on a test, noting that it’s about the same as “a movie date” or “dinner for four at a fast-food restaurant,” and less than what it costs to fill the gas tank of a large car half full.

Alpert, Smarter Balanced’s chief operating officer, noted many of the same points, as well as the “flexibility” of SBAC’s decentralized approach to scoring and administration, which offers states many options for how much to do themselves and how much to have vendors do. If states choose to draw heavily on teachers for scoring, he said, they derive an important professional-development value from that.

“Comparing costs isn’t really accurate,” he said. “States will be buying new things. It’s like comparing the cost of a bicycle to the cost of a car. A car costs more, but what are you buying? [Smarter Balanced tests] are definitely a better value and a better service. They’re going to give teachers and policymakers the information they’ve been asking for.”

The role of artificial intelligence in scoring tests remains an open question in both consortia. If they determine that it is reliable enough to play a large role in scoring, test costs could decline.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.