New report sheds light on how CCSS assessments are well within states’ budgets

assessments-statesMany states that once adopted Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are now pressing the pause button on implementation, in light of the cost of CCSS-aligned assessments. State leaders and stakeholders wonder how assessments aligned to the Common Core compare to assessments currently in place, and are trying to decide to what extent cost factors into CCSS adoption.

“Common Core has become a political hot potato, despite early broad acceptance,” said Russ Whitehurst, the former director of the Institute of Education Sciences within the U.S. Department of Education, and current director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, during an Oct. 30 event.

The event centered around a recent report, “Standardized Testing and the Common Core Standards: You Get What You Pay For?” by Matthew Chingos, a fellow in the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution.

“The main reason these costs must be taken seriously is a political one,” Chingos said. “Much of the opposition to the Common Core Standards has little to do with quality or cost, although the latter is sometimes raised as a concern.”

(Next page: The cost of CCSS assessments)

In order to address many states’ concerns over cost, Chingos analyzed the cost of assessments currently available from two state consortia funded by federal grants: the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and the SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC).

Thirty-three states currently belong to at least one of the consortia, both of which are developing math and ELA assessments for widespread use beginning in the 2014 school year.

According to his analysis, Chingos found that the costs of both CCSS assessments “are not far from the nationwide average of what states currently pay for their existing tests, but many states have expressed concerns about these costs, especially states that currently spend well below average.”

The cost of CCSS assessments

PARCC estimated that its computer-based end-of-year assessments will cost $29.50 per student and SBAC estimated that its computer-based end-of-year assessments will cost $22.50 per student.

Compare those costs to the average per pupil spending of $10,500, and that’s nothing more than a “drop in the bucket,” said Chingos.

“All of the Common Core assessments under consideration cost less than a single textbook,” he said.

“This $30 investment for student assessment is the tail that wags the $10,000 dog of student spending,” said Tom Loveless, Harvard Public Policy professor and Brookings Senior Fellow.

According to Chingos, concerns about the cost of CCSS assessments “likely stem in part from a sense of uncertainty because the consortia have announced estimates, not firm prices. States may be concerned that the price will go up, especially if states leaves the consortia, and that they will be left without an affordable alternative. Opponents of the Common Core may be hoping that the withdrawal of a few states from the common assessments will lead to the unraveling of the consortia”

However, Chingos’ study found that even if opposing states did leave the consortia, the price of assessments per pupil would only raise by cents.

For example, Florida state legislature leaders have called for the state to withdraw from PARCC due to cost concerns, although Chingos said existing data indicates Florida’s tests are more expensive than PARCC’s. Even if Florida left (the state is PARCC’s second-largest member), the per-student price would only increase by about 60 cents for the remaining states.

In general, Chingos found that if all of the states where political debate over the Common Core is most intense were to drop out of the consortia, costs would increase by no more than $2 or $3.

The report also noted that after an analysis of current state spending on assessments, many states would actually save money by keeping with the assessment consortia.

For instance, “a state with 100, 000 students would save 37 percent on testing costs by joining a consortium containing 1 million students. A state could realize those savings in the form of reduced expenditures on testing, or reinvest them in improvements to test quality,” said Chingos.

Regarding the difference between PARCC assessments and SBAC assessments, Chingos goes into great detail, but when comparing costs, he believes comparison may be meaningless.

“The published cost estimates suggest that SBAC’s tests are $7, or about 24 percent, less expensive per student than PARCC’s. However, uncertainty about the assumptions underlying these estimated renders such a comparison nearly meaningless.” Read more in the report.

Chingos is quick to note, however, that the cost comparison does not factor in the costs of any technology upgrades that are needed in order for schools to be ready to deliver computer-based tests, “a factor that will vary by school,” he explained.

(Next page: The other options besides consortia)

Beyond consortia

Outside of the two consortia, ACT is launching its own CCSS assessment system called Aspire in the spring of 2014.

Aspire will include a suite of “yearly tests in English, math, reading, science, and writing in grades 3-10 that is being billed as linked to the ACT exam (and ACT’s college-readiness standards) and aligned to the Common Core,” according to the report.

So far, Alabama has committed to using Aspire and received an “early-adopter” price of $11.70 per student. ACT expects to eventually charge $20 per student for the computer-based version and $26 for the paper-and-pencil version.

Though both Kentucky and New York are members of PARCC, Kentucky has a contract with Pearson at a cost of about $30 per student to fast-track CCSS assessment in the next year or so. That price is $37 per student, to include science and social studies tests, as well as additional item development in math and reading, for the 2013-14 year.

New York has a five-year contract with Pearson (through 2015) at a cost of about $5 per student; however, the contract does not include printing, shipping, or scoring costs. According to the report, the state assessment office estimates a cost of about $13 per student once printing and shipping costs are included.

It’s important to note that scoring is a local responsibility in New York, paid for by individual school districts, so the $13 figure “cannot be compared to the estimated costs of the SBAC, PARCC, and ACT or Kentucky tests, which include scoring costs,” Chingos said.

Where to go from here

According to Chingos, states should try not to concern themselves so much with cost as much as the quality of the assessments. (Chingos goes into great detail about four design principles that should be a part of quality assessments. Read more here.)

“[States] ought to care about the quality of the measures used for such high-stakes decisions, such as whether to close a school or whether to fire a teacher,” he explained. “It seems short sighted to accept a significant decrease in test quality in order to save $10 or $20 per students in the context of an education system that spends more than $10K per pupil.”

Chingos recommends that state policymakers should support state-led efforts to form consortia and stick together so that high quality assessments are affordable and sustainable. Also, states need to gather good information on test quality in order to justify their spending on assessments.

The report also recommends that Congress should amend No Child Left Behind (NCLB) so that part of the federal education funding must be spent on assessments.

“Without any increase in total spending, Congress could set a minimum amount per students that must be spent on assessments, with the minimum chosen to reflect policymakers’ view as to the cost of high-quality assessments,” said Chingos.

He concluded: “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.”

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