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States should collaborate to buy better student tests, report says

Cash-strapped states are trying to figure out how to revamp their testing regimes in response to a new set of Common Core Standards.

States spend $1.7 billion a year on standardized K-12 tests.
Reuters/Vincent Kessler

A new assessment by the Brookings Institution’s Brown Center on Education Policy estimates that states spend $1.7 billion a year on standardized K-12 tests, with $669 million of that going to a relatively small number of for-profit companies.

Minnesota spends $53 per pupil, the ninth-highest rate in the nation and three to six times as much as it spent in 2001. During the time covered by the report, the total $256 million annual outlay went to the nation’s leading assessment vendor, Pearson. Minnesota now uses American Institutes for Research (AIR).

Matt Chingos
Matt Chingos

A mounting backlash against standardized testing notwithstanding, the researcher behind the report is of the opinion that the sum may not be enough to buy decent assessments. Policymakers, Brookings Fellow Matt Chingos argues, actually may have a golden opportunity to use their collective buying power to demand better.

Over the next two years most states are set to revamp their testing regimes — many of them outdated and incapable of measuring things that educators actually need to know to improve student achievement. And most are moving toward teacher-evaluation systems that require far more sophisticated assessment regimes. 

Doing away with the tests would not wipe away much red ink, Chingos noted. Eye-popping as they are, testing expenses represent less than a quarter of a percent of education funding. Doing away with the assessments altogether and redirecting the money could lower class sizes by .1 pupil per teacher or give every teacher a $550 raise.

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The topic is likely to come up again and again in coming months as cash-strapped states try to figure out how to revamp their testing regimes in response to a new set of Common Core Standards (CCS). Several years in the making, it’s a painstaking effort by policymakers in 45 states to try to level the educational playing field by setting one baseline for what U.S. students ought to know.

We need this single set of standards because, faced with punitive consequences when too many kids fail the aforementioned low-quality, high-stakes standardized tests, some states have reacted by dumbing things down. Paying for better tests may strike some people as throwing good money after bad, Chingos acknowledges, but the juncture presents a chance to introduce some rationality to the whole sorry mess.