5 things to know about the financial cost of testing

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

1. Pennsylvania Gov. Wolf has requested a total of $58.3 million for testing in the current budget.

The Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) contracts with Data Recognition Corp. (DRC) for the PSSAs and the Keystones. Both contracts run through June 2016 and cover test development, administration, scoring, and reporting. In 2014-15, the company received about $30 million for the PSSAs – about $39 per student tested – and $27 million for the Keystones.

DRC also provides classroom diagnostic tools and other preparatory materials through the eDirect website.

2. The actual costs of testing to districts and schools – including staff time, prep, and materials – are hard to estimate.

Districts and schools generally don’t separate out these costs. In the Philadelphia School District, for example, assessment, curriculum, and instruction are combined in one department.

PDE also does not break out separate testing administration costs.

The Council of the Great City Schools, in a report issued in October, analyzed testing expenses for the 200,000-student Hillsborough School District in Florida and found the total to be $2.2 million in testing expenses, which made up about one tenth of one percent of the district’s annual budget of $2.2 billion.

The Council’s report cited a recent study by the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution estimating that the expenditure on standardized assessments by states across the country is about $1.7 billion annually – or about $34 per student – and said: “Although the number appears high, the report suggests that if these dollars were reinvested in classrooms or teacher raises, the student-teacher ratio would fall by only 0.1 student, and teacher salaries would increase by only $550 per teacher annually.”

3. Districts generally don’t track the costs of test preparation activities as distinct from other instructional time.

In the Philadelphia School District, for example, schools are supplied with materials to aid in teaching subjects that are tested, but they are given no special test preparation materials. Individual schools, however, may purchase materials and dedicate time strictly for test preparation.

4. Besides the PSSA and Keystones, the state mandates and pays for several other tests, targeted to specific groups.

*The Kindergarten Entry Inventory, to indicate a variety of individual needs for incoming students.

*ACCESS, a measurement of academic language proficiency for English language learner (ELL) students.

*The WIDA-ACCESS Placement Test, a screening test to identify ELL students.

*The Pennsylvania Alternate System of Assessment (PASA), for students with such severe cognitive disabilities that they cannot meaningfully participate in the PSSA.

Their total cost per year, in state and federal funds, is roughly $7 million.

5. The federal government expects to spend $157 million this year on its mandated test.

Randomly selected students from a sample of schools participate every year in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which tests them in a variety of subjects to determine academic performance against a national standard.

NAEP provides data for states but does not for individual students or schools. Selected students in the School District of Philadelphia participate every other year in the Trial Urban District Assessment, or TUDA, a NAEP exam given in 21 large urban districts.

Both tests are administered and fully paid for by the federal government.