Is $1.7 billion a lot or a little to spend on testing?

Female high school student reading from a workbook while sitting in a classroom
The Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C..

The Brookings Institute in Washington, D.C.. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I reviewed the main findings from the Brookings Institute report, Strength in Numbers: State Spending on K-12 Assessment Systems. Author Matthew Chingos has addressed a topic that is important to all of us—students themselves, parents, educators, and taxpayers. When I was Maryland’s State Director of Student Assessment in the 1990s, I spent a fair amount of time wrestling with concerns about the cost of testing and a related topic, the amount of time that testing borrows from instructional time. These concerns persist today: every dollar and minute spent on public education matters.

Chingos reports that, collectively, 45 states spent $669 million annually on assessment in recent years. When he projected that figure to all states, the total cost was $1.7 billion each year. That’s a big number. By his calculation, that represents only “one-quarter of one percent of annual K-12 education spending.” Is it too much?

I faced that question often in Maryland, especially from the State Board and legislators. Although it may seem self serving, given my former position at Pearson, my answer then and now are the same: No. Annual school testing produces important information about school performance and quality, and for a miniscule percentage of education spending. We need to know how well our schools are serving our children. State tests tell us some important things about that, including which schools need the most help to improve student learning and which schools can serve as models for those schools to learn from. (How teachers assess students in the classroom is another topic for another time.)

Some might argue that the money would be better spent to raise teacher salaries. Chingos calculates that the $1.7 billion would amount to a raise of $550 per teacher. Is that enough to attract the best academic talent to teaching and to retain the most accomplished teachers? I think the question answers itself. (Using the money to reduce class size—a widely popular goal with some research support—also is another topic for another time.)

What about time spent on testing? That’s viewed as time spent away from teaching. Let’s estimate that students in grades 3-8 spend about ten hours on end of year tests. In a 180 day, six hours per day school year, that amounts to just under one percent of the school year (i.e., 6 x 180 = 1,080 hours; 10/1080 = 0.93 percent), or about a day and a half of school per year. Compare that to the time that may be lost on the day before school vacations, the last week of the school year, assemblies, organizing at the beginning and end of the school day, disruptions, etc. Ten hours a year seems like time well spent, to me.

It’s true that teachers spend time preparing students for school tests. (And some may spend too much time.) The right kinds of tests—ones that focus on the knowledge and skills students need to be well prepared for their futures—can influence teaching and learning in very positive ways. The Common Core State Standards emphasize knowledge and skills required to be well prepared for education, work, and life after high school. So do 21st century skills like communication, collaboration, and critical thinking. Assessing these standards and skills requires the use of performance assessment. A performance assessment in English language arts might require students to synthesize information from a news story, a policy report, and a video to construct a persuasive argument. Or, rather than being asked to do “naked” mathematical calculations, students might be asked to use data and to reason quantitatively, solve a problem, and construct and support an argument. Preparing students to do these things is not just test prep—it’s good instruction. Research indicates that the Maryland, Kentucky, and Vermont performance assessment programs of the 1990s influenced the rigor of teachers’ expectations for their students’ learning and were related to improved student achievement.


About the Author

Steve Ferrara is a former vice president for performance assessment at Pearson and headed the Center for NextGen Learning & Assessment. He lead the design, implementation, and evaluation of performance assessments. He began his career as a high school special education teacher. Then, he directed Maryland’s state accountability testing system for 12 years and designed its end-of-course exams and the highly regarded Maryland School Performance Assessment program. He also designed and implemented performance assessments for grade-level student achievement, English language proficiency, and alternate assessment for students with significant cognitive disabilities. Next, he joined the American Institutes of Research where he managed, designed, and oversaw research projects. Most recently, Dr. Ferrara was with CTB McGraw-Hill, where he worked on standard setting in several states and served as the lead research scientist for the District of Columbia’s statewide assessment program. He holds doctorate and Educational Specialist degrees in Educational Psychology and Measurement from Stanford University, a master’s degree in Special Education from Boston State College, and a bachelor’s degree in English and Journalism from the University of Massachusetts.