Getting to Higher-Quality Assessments: Evaluating Costs, Benefits, and Investment Strategies

Getting to Higher-Quality Assessments: Evaluating Costs, Benefits, and Investment Strategies cover
March 18, 2013
Barry Topol
John Olson
Ed Roeber

Among the many forces influencing state assessment, the issues of increasing assessment quality, cost of innovative assessments, lack of state funds, and the increased amount and frequency of testing are at the forefront. Given the current financial situation in most states, there is concern that new assessment designs, such as those developed by the two new assessment consortia—Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortia (SBAC) and Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC)—need to be as cost-effective and efficient as possible, as well as supportive of higher-quality learning that is more comparable to assessments in high-achieving nations than the tests currently in wide use in the United States today.

As policymakers consider the costs of new assessment systems, it is important to understand the costs of existing testing systems that have evolved at the local as well as state levels, currently pointed at improving performance on No Child Left Behind (NCLB) summative tests. To examine these issues, the Assessment Solutions Group (ASG) conducted a research effort in selected locations across the United States to estimate the total current assessment spending per student combining summative, interim, and formative assessment approaches now in place. A sample of state and district staff was surveyed to collect this information. ASG then compared current assessment spending for state summative and interim assessments against what a new higher-quality assessment system, containing these types of assessments, might look like and cost.

The ASG study brings together this current survey data from states and districts along with data from a previous ASG study (Topol, Olson, & Roeber, 2010, p. 5), an unpublished ASG survey of states (2011), and Heppen et al. (2011) on use of interim assessments by large school districts. In this report, we review the results of all of our analyses to determine the affordability of higher-quality assessments.

An examination of the data indicates that higher-quality assessment systems—those that do a better job of measuring students’ critical thinking skills—should be readily affordable in today’s testing environment. ASG found that the average current state spending on mathematics and ELA summative assessments required by NCLB is in the $20–$25 per student range. Additional state spending on non-NCLB required assessments (additional assessments, domains, and grades) represent a potential additional source of funding for higher-quality assessments. ASG estimates this additional spending to be roughly $10 a student.

In addition, school districts are spending an average of $15–$20 or more per student on interim assessments and data management systems to house their test data. The combined costs of typical state and local spending on interim and summative assessments in ELA and mathematics are in the vicinity of $35–55 per pupil. Ironically, these investments are made in fragmented ways on tools that are not always well-aligned and are focused on tests that, in general, measure few of the more advanced skills needed for college and careers.

A more unified system of higher-quality assessments, combining state and district spending, could result in significant additional dollars that could be made available for an integrated system of higher-quality assessments or other educational uses.