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The High Costs of High-Stakes Testing

Katie Pak
Wednesday, June 22, 2016

We have just closed out yet another school year wrought with online testing challenges. A flurry of legislative activity to alter state assessments plans has also made Spring 2016 an eventful semester. And now, preparations for the next school year are underway, with top officials opening up bids for new standardized testing vendors and contracts. Others are considering eliminating end of year assessments entirely, as the most up-to-date federal education bill, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), allows interim assessment scores to count as a single, summative score. The ever-changing nature of these mandates begs the question, what are some of the complications and costs of maintaining the revolving door of state tests?

What are the costs of maintaining the revolving door of state tests?

States that have withdrawn from the two nationwide testing consortia, PARCC and SBAC, help answer this question by drawing our attention to the repercussions of switching to their own state-specific tests. While the instability caused by these testing changes is immeasurable, the financial costs are not. Tennessee spent $126 million as a result of their decision to back out of the PARCC consortium and administer their own tests. Indiana has thus far lost $40 million to their non-PARCC tests after pulling out of the consortium in 2013. Mississippi has spent over $12 million for a new 2016 assessment rather than sticking with the $8 million PARCC test the state administered in 2015. Pennsylvania’s contract with Data Recognition Co, which they entered into after they withdrew from the PARCC in 2013, is priced at approximately $30 million per year. North Dakota and Wyoming’s recent announcement that they are withdrawing their SBAC membership and seeking new testing vendors is also likely to be an exorbitant expense. Alaska, on the other hand, may avoid these cost concerns altogether for the next few years. While it is not part of either of the two multi-state testing consortia, its legislature has just signed a bill suspending state testing until 2020 and is currently awaiting the governor’s signature.

Though scholars such as Matthew M. Chingos have asserted that in the grand scheme of things, funding for state tests is a miniscule portion of the total amount spent on K-12 public education, I wonder how the cost of switching state exams will impact districts that receive disproportionately less in state aid. In 23 states, students in the poorest districts receive fewer dollars per pupil than students in wealthier districts. Philadelphia, my current city of residence, is an example of a beleaguered district with inadequate funding and heavy reliance on teacher and parent donations due to state budget cuts. In these high poverty districts, is a greater proportion of the state allocated money reserved for standardized testing? The concern is not just a financial one. In resource-strapped districts, are schools likely to receive less support for counselors, the arts, recess, electives, common planning time, and other important necessities because so much of their budget is needed for standardized tests?

Standardized tests can be helpful instruments if implemented in the right ways, in reasonable dosages, for the right end goals. Civil rights advocates have touted the necessity in retaining standardized tests as a civil rights issue. Achievement scores do offer a snapshot on students’ progress towards mastery over college and career ready standards. They allow the public audience to question whether all children of all backgrounds are receiving equitable educational opportunities. In other words, our standardized tests fulfill a comparative function, in that they expose important variations in student achievement levels.

Unfortunately, policymakers’ conflation of standardized tests’ evaluative capabilities with their comparative capabilities, factoring them into high stakes evaluations of teachers, schools, and districts, makes the financial burden of these tests sting even more. Missing from this picture is the instructional utility of these tests. Some tests are indeed created to provide educators with actionable evidence regarding students’ strengths and areas in need of improvement, though our current standardized tests are not designed for this purpose. One must understand these three distinct functions, as some educational researchers have already pointed out, so that we aren’t designing and using standardized tests in a disconnected fashion.

Policymakers’ conflation of standardized tests’ evaluative capabilities with their comparative capabilities, factoring them into high stakes evaluations of teachers, schools, and districts, makes the financial burden of these tests sting even more.

Educators and parents around the country echo this frustration over the way we misuse standardizing testing today. Tests were created so that aggregated results could be compared against each other and not be decisive factors in evaluation or instructional improvement. The nation has responded, and continues to respond, to the undue emphasis on high stakes testing in a number of ways. One is to participate in the opt-out movement and outright reject compliance with assessment mandates. This highly publicized protest of standardized tests has highlighted how their purpose has been twisted to fit into the accountability regime, despite the fact that they are designed to measure student learning, not teacher instruction.

Bloggers such as Joe Bower also testify to the misappropriation of educational testing:

“The most important things that children learn in school are not easily measured… The good news, however, is that the most important and meaningful things that we want children to learn and do in school can always be observed and described. This is precisely why it is so important to remember that the root word for assessment is assidere which literally means 'to sit beside.' Assessment is not a spreadsheet – it's a conversation.”

It is for this reason that we should keep an eye on New Hampshire’s pilot of a new kind of assessment, one that more holistically examines multiple measures of student performance and focuses less on standardized testing. The eight pilot districts limit SBAC testing to just three grade levels, while the other grades experience district-developed competency-based performance tasks that ask students to explain, apply, and model their understanding of interdisciplinary real world problems. Students tackle these problems both individually and collectively, and they are provided with such opportunities as part of their regular curriculum. The goal is not to reduce student achievement to numbers that fit into a spreadsheet for comparison purposes, but to learn more deeply about the different and brilliant ways in which students think and how teachers can further support their academic growth.

The time-consuming, costly, and highly politicized aspects of developing less standardized, more authentic measurements of teacher and student performance will certainly be a daunting endeavor for states, but the benefits will outweigh the costs.