Strength in Numbers: State Spending in K-12 Assessment Systems

With the imminent arrival of the Common Core and its associated assessment requirements in 45 states and the District of Columbia by 2014-15, much concern has been generated about the cost to states of all of this innovation. The prevailing concern is that states will be forced to spend excessively to change and upgrade their existing standards and associated assessments.

The new report by Matthew Chingos, Strength in Numbers: State Spending on K-12 Assessment Systems, published by the Brown Center on Education Policy at Brookings notes that it is actually difficult to determine whether states participating in the two consortia of Common Core assessments (PARCC and Smarter Balance) will face higher or lower costs for new assessment systems primarily because the costs of their existing systems are difficult to calculate. Using contract information between states and testing vendors, Chingos attempts to merge disparate data into overall and per-pupil costs for those states and to make as close a comparison between states as possible.

Ohio’s current per-pupil cost for all assessment activities was calculated at $40, placing it 11th out of 45 jurisdictions for which data were available, and well above the national average of $27 per student. The key factor identified that affects per-pupil cost most consistently was student population size: “The most conservative estimates,” Chingos remarks, “indicate that moving from a state with about 100,000 students…to one with about 1,000,000 students is associated with a decrease in per-pupil assessment costs from $37 to $24, a savings of $13 or about 35 percent.” So, it appears that larger states benefit from economies of scale in their testing costs.

In the end, Chingos concludes that “a clear strategy for cost savings is for states to collaborate on assessments so as to share the fixed costs of test and item development over a larger number of students” but that the full extent of those savings cannot be determined with existing data. He also notes helpfully that larger consortia (such as PARCC and SBAC) could also use their market power to encourage test-makers to divulge more details of their pricing models in order to assist in making purchasing decisions.

Chingos’ report is an excellent addition to Fordham’s recent report Putting a Price Tag on the Common Core: How much will smart implementation cost?

SOURCE: Matthew Chingos, Strength in Numbers: State Spending in K-12 Assessment Systems (Washington DC: Brookings Institution, November 2012).

Jeff Murray
Jeff Murray is the Ohio Operations Manager of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute,