Study Weighs Cost Landscape Facing Common-Core Tests

By Catherine Gewertz — November 05, 2013 4 min read
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The two federally funded consortia of states developing tests aligned to the common core won’t have to increase the prices of their assessments by more than a few dollars per student if some states drop out, according to a new report.

The analysis, released last week by the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, attempts to quantify one potential kind of damage that common-assessment opponents could inflict on the two testing groups: driving up the cost of the tests by getting states to withdraw.

The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium are using $360 million in federal grant money to design tests that will debut in 2015.

Four states have dropped out of those projects in recent months: Alabama, Georgia, Oklahoma, and Utah. Others have said they’re not using the tests, or are still weighing their options, even as they remain consortium members. That uncertainty has raised the question of how much the tests’ price could rise if fewer states must share fixed costs such as item development.

Brookings scholar Matthew M. Chingos found that it would take “mass defections” of states to boost the price more than a few dollars per student. If only a few states in each consortium drop out, it will have only “a minimal impact” on the cost of the tests, he writes.

“For either PARCC or SBAC to face any real cost-based threat from states dropping out, the political opponents of the common core would have to be successful in all of the states where they have been most active and in several additional states,” the report says.

If the 25-state Smarter Balanced group loses the six states where there have been particularly heated debates about the Common Core State Standards—Kansas, Missouri, Michigan, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Wisconsin—its projected cost of $22.50 for summative tests in math and English/language arts would rise by about $2.50 per student, according to Mr. Chingos’ calculations. He found that Smarter Balanced could lose half its members and still keep its test cost under $30 per student.

PARCC currently has 19 members—18 states and the District of Columbia. If one of its biggest members, Florida, drops out, PARCC’s current projected price of $29.50 for summative tests would rise 63 cents, the Brookings study found. If the consortium dwindles to 15 members, the cost would rise to $32.08, it says.

Artificial Intelligence

The Brookings study also explores another important driver of test cost: how many of its constructed-response items and performance tasks will be scored by hand and how many by artificial intelligence, or AI. PARCC’s price estimate assumes no cost-savings from AI, since there are still questions about its accuracy. If those questions can be resolved, some cost-savings could be realized down the line.

Until recently, Smarter Balanced planned to have states use artificial intelligence to score half its constructed-response items and performance tasks. Mr. Chingos calculated that if Smarter Balanced used AI scoring for only 25 percent of those items, the scoring cost would rise by $1.45 per student. If it abandoned AI, the cost would rise another $1.45 per student.

As he wrote the report, however, Mr. Chingos learned that Smarter Balanced had scaled back the role artificial intelligence will play in scoring its tests, at least in the first operational year. That means more human scoring, which is costlier. So the consortium decided to substitute 8 percent to 10 percent of its constructed-response items for items that can be machine-scored.

“We have determined that AI has not yet evolved to a place where it can score the types of writing needed to assess the common core,” Smarter Balanced spokeswoman Jacqueline King wrote in an email to Education Week. “Luckily, our cost estimates were conservative, so we have been able to switch to hand-scoring while maintaining our cost estimates.”

‘Penny-Wise and Pound-Foolish’

In exploring the cost landscape for common-core tests, Mr. Chingos also notes the nonconsortium options a few states are using. Kentucky and New York are paying $34 to $37 per student for their own transitional common-core tests, designed by Pearson. And Alabama, the first state to sign up for ACT’s new suite of assessments, Aspire, got an introductory rate of $11.70 per student for a test that’s projected to cost closer to $20 when it comes online in 2014, the Brookings study says.

As states consider their testing options, Mr. Chingos urged them not to be “penny-wise and pound-foolish,” however, shortchanging test quality for low price. He outlined four aspects of test quality that states should take seriously: making sure that tests include “the kinds of tasks that we want students to learn in school,” such as writing; covering the full range and depth of the standards they measure; providing timely feedback; and being proven to predict success in college and careers.

“We should embrace the likelihood that tests will send signals, and embrace tests that send desirable signals instead of undesirable ones,” Mr. Chingos said at a Brookings Institution discussion about the report.

Brookings scholar Tom Loveless, who also participated in the panel discussion, argued that the cost of tests—an estimated average of $30 per student nationally—is small compared with $10,500 per student that is spent on public K-12 education. When states cite cost as a factor in withdrawing from the consortia, he argued, they’re using it “as an excuse,” when their real concern is the systemic improvements in curriculum, materials, and professional development that high-quality tests would necessitate.

The real expenses lie in changing classroom instruction and intervention, said Eric J. Smith, a former Florida schools superintendent. There is no point in using good standards and tests if they don’t inform strong interventions to help struggling students, he said.

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A version of this article appeared in the November 07, 2013 edition of Education Week as Study Weighs Cost Landscape Facing Common-Core Tests


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