The Common Core State Standards have caused an uproar in some states, due to a perceived federal overreach into education policy, difficulties training teachers to adjust to the new standards and costs associated with developing and administering tests that fit the more rigorous curriculum guidelines. But a new report from the Brookings Institution shows the cost of the new tests is not far from what most states already spend per student, and won't increase significantly, even if more states leave two groups developing the tests for the majority of schools.
Currently, 45 states and the District of Columbia have adopted the voluntary math and English language arts standards, which should be fully implemented by the 2014-15 school year, coinciding with assessments aligned with the standards. And most of those states plan to use computer-based assessments developed by two consortia: the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers and the SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium, at a cost of $29.50 and $22.50 per student, respectively.
But as some states (Alabama, Georgia, Oklahoma, and Utah) have dropped out of the consortia, citing the cost of the tests as a reason, there is a growing concern that test costs will go up as consortia membership decreases. The total cost of the tests come from fixed administrative costs associated with developing, administering and scoring the tests, and a variable amount that depends on the number of students taking those tests. If the number of students goes down, theoretically, the cost of the tests could go up.
Although the costs are not far from the current national average of $27 per student, spending on state assessments is of particular concern to some states that already spend less than the national average, such as Georgia, which has historically spent $14 per student, according to the Brookings report, written by Matthew Chingos. But because the variable costs of the tests make up a smaller portion of the overall cost, Chingos argues the total cost of the test would likely not change much if more states leave the PARCC and SBAC consortia.
"It is easy to understand why assessment costs receive a great deal of attention given the controversy surrounding standardized testing and the budgetary pressures that states have been facing for several years," Chingos writes. "At the same time, states must not be penny wise and pound foolish."
By analyzing the fixed and variable costs of developing, administering and scoring the two consortia's assessments, Chingos found that costs would only increase by a few dollars per student if more states were to leave the consortia. While those numbers add up in states with hundreds of thousands of students, it's just a drop in the bucket, considering the fact that states on average spend a total of $10,500 annually to educate each student. It would be unwise, Chingos writes, to adopt a lower quality assessment to save a few dollars per student.
In the PARCC consortium, for example, three states containing about 1.6 million students have withdrawn. Chingos estimates that the tests will now cost about 50 cents more per student. Recently, Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, has pressured the state government to withdraw from PARCC, although his concerns are with a perceived federal overreach into education policy. Although the Common Core standards are a state-led effort, they have the strong support of the federal government.
"We agree that we should say 'yes' to high standards for Florida students and 'no' to the federal government's overreach into our education system," Scott said in a Sept. 23 statement. "We are committed to maintaining high standards for our students. Period."
In July, Georgia announced its decision to withdraw from PARCC, opting to develop its own assessments.
"Assessing our students' academic performance remains a critical need to ensure that young Georgians can compete on equal footing with their peers throughout the country," Gov. Nathan Deal said in a statement. "Georgia can create an equally rigorous measurement without the high costs associated with this particular test. Just as we do in all other branches of state government, we can create better value for taxpayers while maintaining the same level of quality."
But even if PARCC were to lose a state with such a large student population, Chingos estimates the cost per student for PARCC tests would only increase to $30.72. Additionally, even if only the 15 states currently field-testing the PARCC assessments were to remain in the consortium (PARCC currently has 19 member states) the cost would still be under $40 per student.
And within the SBAC consortium, half of the 22 member states could leave without the cost rising above $30 per student. More than two-thirds could leave, Chingos estimates, and the cost would still be below $40 per student.
"In sum, 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," Chingos writes.
Although PARCC and SBAC are the two largest, and "quasi-official" Common Core assessment providers, Chingos writes, some states are still exploring other options to save money.
Alabama, for example, chose to use an assessment developed by the testing company ACT, which will initially cost $11.70 per student, before eventually increasing to $20 per student for the computer-based version.
And Kentucky has contracted with Pearson for assessments including not only math and English, but also science and social studies tests, for a total of $37 per student.
Although cost is a big concern for cash-strapped state governments and educational agencies, they cannot compromise on the quality of tests to save money, Chingos writes.
It's not just the students who have a stake in the quality of assessments, though. Teachers and the schools themselves are evaluated based on how well students perform on annual tests and how they improve year-to-year.
Ensuring that states do not compromise on quality should be at least partially a responsibility of policymakers, Chingos writes. With the upcoming reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, less formally known as No Child Left Behind, Chingos argues Congress should write in a provision that part of federal education spending is dedicated to assessments.
That way, there would not be an increase in total spending, and states may be more motivated to spend a little more on higher quality tests, with assistance from the federal government and little impact to other areas of their spending, he argues.
"Making the cost of state assessments into a political issue certainly pre-dates the Common Core effort, and will continue to be a point of contention even in states that are not questioning their adoption of the new standards," Chingos writes. "It is too early to tell which path will be the best choice for students, but two facts are clear: taxpayers get more bang for their buck when states collaborate, and students cannot afford for policymakers to compromise on assessment quality."