The amount of standardized testing undergone by children in public schools has increased dramatically in the past several decades due to No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and other legislation, and a general cultural shift toward child measurement based on standardized testing. Proponents of the increased use of standardized testing to measure student progress and performance argue that consistent testing helps hold education systems accountable for student performance, and helps identify areas where students are struggling and where education entities need to focus attention. Opponents argue that testing is expensive, may be culturally biased, and does not do an adequate job of measuring true ability and performance.
Graph Source: State Spending on K-12 Assessment Systems,
Brown Center on Education Policy, p.12
Despite any reservations, standardized testing has become an integral part of our school system. A 2012 analysis done by the Matthew Chingos at the Brown Center on Education Policy estimated that states collectively spend a total of $1.7 billion annually on student assessments. This amounts to $27 per student. Chingos also found considerable variation between states in their spending on student assessments. While the size of the differences in spending may be misleading at first glance because states differ in the percent of total education spending paid for by local governments, there are several important findings on differences in state spending on education assessment from Chingos’ analysis.
On average, larger states spent less per pupil than states with smaller numbers of students. Of the 45 states included in Chingos’ analysis, New York spent $7 per student on standardized testing, while Vermont and the Dakotas ranked much higher on the list. Two likely explanations for these differences are that fixed costs of test development are spread across more students in larger areas, and that larger school systems have more bargaining power when negotiating contracts with the 6 major testing companies that hold almost 90% of the market share in test development, with Pearson holding the largest share at 39%.
The current use of standardized testing varies considerably among states. In Texas, which currently uses standardized tests in its high school graduation requirements, legislators are considering changes in spending on standardized testing in Texas.
The United States is one of the few countries that does not have national education curriculum standards, and states are able to set their own education standards and programs (provided they comply with certain federal regulations such as NCLB and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act). The Common Core State Standards Initiative aims to align curriculum across states for students in K-12. To date, 45 states and D.C. have joined, and math and English language standards were released in 2010. Participation in the Common Core is voluntary, but remains controversial; although states are not explicitly required to join, states are required to join as a condition of receiving a waiver from NCLB.
In addition to forming common learning standards across participating states, the Common Core has become a basis for forming standardized assessments. The Department of Education has given $360 million in funding to two consortia of states to develop assessments to be implemented in the 2014-15 school year based on the Common Core standards. In theory, the collaboration among states should reduce per-pupil costs for the tests due to the aforementioned bargaining power and spreading of fixed development costs throughout the member states. Chingos estimated that participating states, and especially smaller states, could realize considerable cost savings from the collaboration. He also recommended that larger states use their current market power to encourage test makers to give more detail on their pricing models to increase transparency and decrease costs.
The 2012 Brown Center Report on American Education suggested that implementation of the Common Core would have only small, if any, impact on student achievement in the U.S. Tom Loveless, the report’s author, pointed out that changes in individual state standards typically do nothing to change of intra-state variation in student performance. A study by William Mathis with the University of Colorado found that while students from low SES households need an average of 20 to 40% more funding to bring disadvantaged students up to state educational standards, areas with concentrated poverty typically receive 20% less funding than areas with more affluent households.
Overall, standardized testing in public schools has the potential to be a good tool for teachers and policymakers to monitor student performance, but as Mathis points out, there are still major concerns with using them in high-stakes situations such as for evaluating school and teacher performance, and especially for individual level decisions such as for graduation requirements. Moving forward, states would be wise to carefully consider the intended uses of tests when making decisions based on them, and to have a clear and consistent plan for what to do with the information collected from them.