Matt Chingos has an idea that will likely roil the scores of parents and teachers who think the U.S. tests its students too much: we might actually spend too little on standardized testing.
But he's not alone.
"He shows, that with the debate about testing in this country -- it costs too much money -- it's absolutely wrong," said David Coleman, president of the College Board, the company that administers the SATs.
In a report released Thursday titled "State Spending on K-12 Assessments," Chingos, a fellow at the Brookings Institute, tallied up the cost of standardized testing, a subject that has fueled much debate and speculation. After sending out countless Freedom of Information Act requests and rummaging through boxes of documents, he arrived at an estimate of $1.7 billion.
"While it may seem like a lot, it's more or less a drop in the bucket," Chingos told The Huffington Post. All told, that number represents one quarter of one percent of all money spent on education. According to his calculations, ending all testing and reallocating the cost to personnel could either decrease the student-teacher ratio by .1 students per teacher, or give teachers a raise of $550.
These numbers matter because even in an environment of economic woe and budget cuts, tests are about to see the biggest wave of change since the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act, which required states to test students annually from third grade onward. Now, 45 states are preparing to adopt a new generation of tests aligned with the Common Core State Standards, a set of teaching goals aimed to get kids to think more deeply about things like fractions and evidence-based arguments, and to eventually prepare them for college or the workforce. Funding for these exams has so far come largely from the federal government, but will dry up six months before the tests' first administration.
And with testing at an inflection point, Common Core advocates are seeing this moment as a critical one in marketing their veracity to teachers. On various polls, only between 20 and 25 percent of teachers indicate that they think the standardized tests associated with NCLB are accurate reflections of their students' learning. The perceived fallibility of these exams is part of what gave NCLB such a bad rap in the first place. In fact, this week, the American Federation of Teachers launched a campaign to end the "fixation on standardized testing" (but the union does support the Common Core.)
"You get this rage up that we're wasting time testing, and you're making testing shorter and shittier," Coleman said at a Brookings panel Thursday. "And then people say the test is all multiple choice and bad. We've worked ourselves into a set of stupidities when really -- I'll say it -- we might want want longer, more thoughtful exams." And those exams might cost more.
Nancy Grasmick, a previous Maryland education chief, saw the drawbacks of these transitions. "We lost something when we went to a multiple-choice test that did not require writing but required filling in the right circle," Grasmick said.
Such changes can bring anxiety for the test takers. Gerard Robinson, the former education chief of Florida and Virginia, put it this way: "I won't pretend that tests don't matter and there's no anxiety -- but I also tell people there's anxiety with sex. There's anxiety with sex, but there isn't any talk about getting rid of that."
For his study, Chingos was able to procure testing contracts from 44 states and Washington, D.C., and found that, on average, states spend about $27 on testing per student between grades three and nine. In general, he found that smaller states spend more: D.C. spends $114 per student, whereas New York spends only $7.
"This relatively low level of spending on assessment, combined with concerns that the quality of tests in many states is not high enough to use them for high-stakes purposes such as teacher evaluation, strongly suggests that states should seek efficiencies in order to absorb budget cuts without compromising test quality or to free up resources that could be reinvested in upgrades to assessment systems," Chingos wrote.
"We don't spend much on testing in this country," he said, "perhaps we're spending less than we should."