Stateline Story

SPECIAL REPORT: States Pay $400 Million For Tests In 2001

  • February 27, 2001
  • By Tiffany Danitz

On his third day in office, President George W. Bush laid out a blueprint for education that includes mandating that states test every student in grades 3-8 or risk losing some of the money the federal government provides for education. If enacted, all but 15 states would have to revamp their testing system, a costly proposition since states are collectively spending more than $400 million this year to test students in far fewer grades.

The nation's governors reacted yesterday (Feb. 27) to Bush's testing proposals by changing their education reform policy statement at the National Governor's Association annual meeting in Washington.

"Governors are accepting additional assessments and accountability, but without funding. Our willingness to accept those mandates should be contingent upon funding," said Maine's Independent Governor Angus King.

Bush's testing proposal is based on Texas reforms. This year the Lone Star state is spending $26,680,523 to develop the test, administer and score it in grades 3-8 and one year in high school, according to DeEtta Culbertson, an information specialist for the Texas Education Agency.

California spends the most on its exam ($44 million) followed by Texas, Florida ($22.4 million), Massachusetts ($20 million), Indiana ($19 million), Virginia ($17.9 million) and Maryland ($17.1 million). (SEE TABLE)

"You look at the few states that comply (with Bush's testing agenda) and they are spending a lot of money. It is safe to say that the states that don't do thorough yearly testing would have to spend a considerable amount of time, money and effort to get up to speed with the president's proposal," said David Shreve, a state policy expert for the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) in Washington.

But U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige, who would be responsible for carrying out Bush's reforms, told Stateline.org that the costs of failing to measure elementary pupils' abilities would be too high.

"A student can have an education deficit that can grow to a point where it is uncontrollable. We want to know as early as possible if a student is having difficulty (learning). Our problem is not that we aren't working hard, it is that we can't know what to target unless we make the problem visible. Tell us about these young people's weaknesses early enough to fix the problem. It is too expensive and too difficult to change that at the 9th grade."

Over the last decade, states have been trying to raise student achievement by setting standards of learning for each grade. States have been using tests in benchmark grades such as 3,5 and 9 to measure whether or not the kids are learning.

Most of Bush's proposals endorse what states have been doing, but his plan would put teeth into the reforms by mandating testing and withholding some Title 1 money from states that fail to improve student learning while rewarding more successful states.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge (R) emphasized that the governors want to work with the Bush administration. While Ridge would share some of the expense of testing, he said most governors would prefer to see the testing proposal fully funded from Washington. "I expect to receive most of the money from the Federal Government," Ridge told Stateline.org.

Some states are already ahead of the game. Since 1992, Tennessee has been testing grades 3-8, as well as high school. "We are geared up. We feel we have a premier evaluation system," said Dr. Ben Brown, Tennessee's director of testing.

Delaware also has a highly respected testing program for grades 3-6,8,10 and 11. On the surface, the $4 million price tag doesn't seem too expensive, but Delaware has the second smallest student population only 114,000 statewide.

Bush's plan won't effect Florida, Tennessee and Delaware as severely as Wisconsin, according to H. Gary Cook, Director of Wisconsin's accountability office. "We don't test as much and we don't customize all our tests," he said. Customizing a test, such as the Stanford 9, an off-the-shelf-test, requires states to hire test writers and content experts.

Costly Choices

Most states use a combination of off-the-shelf tests and exams designed by the state specifically to measure standards. Off-the-shelf-tests cost between $5 and $15 per student to administer, but states building new, aligned exams can spend from $25 to $50 per student, according to David Griffith, director of government affairs at the National Association of State Boards of Education (NASBE).

Generally, states limit the grades tested because of cost and time. Many in the education community worry that the expense will force states to resort to less rigorous tests and inadequate resources to help struggling students catch up.

"There is no bonus for coming out with the best test system, just punishment for not having one," said Griffith. "Too often, when states are given a mandate they are going to do the minimum of what is required especially when there is a huge price tag on it. So one of our (NASBE) concerns is that everyone ends up using the Stanford-9. "

Montana is one such state. The legislature hasn't required the state to develop a test aligned with the standards and the students are being tested with an off-the-shelf test, according to Madalyn Quinlan, Chief of Staff to the Superintendent of Schools.

Allan Olson, testing expert and executive director of Northwest Evaluation Association in Oregon, said he is most concerned with how states will implement Bush's testing mandate. "Bush's model will put in place a very old testing system. Most testing systems are not accurate enough to be sure where any student is at in grades 3-8. The methods currently in use are not helpful to the very people who need to guide improvement in learning."

Making Tests Work

Early on, Maryland policy makers realized that "testing is here to stay," according to Martin Kehe, assessment operational manager for Maryland's Education Department. The state did its best to figure out "what kind of testing will support the best kind of instruction," he said.

This was a significant move, because many educators worry that testing is taking up too much time and teachers are "teaching to the test." (See sidebar School Superintendents, Educators React To Bush Test Plan)

"Our communities strongly oppose a singular statewide test because it leads to teaching to the test," said Betty Vandevander, a spokesperson for Nebraska's Education Department. The state hired a test developer last year to create an exam from the ground up that works within the current curriculum being taught in the local schools, according to Vandevander.

"Testing is here to stay, accept it. What we need to figure out is how do we use the data to help and the test to instruct," said Bob Barr, senior analyst with the Center for School Improvement at Boise State University in Idaho.

The second thing a test must do is pinpoint where students need to improve. Some schools give the tests in April and the results are reported in October when the student has already moved on to the next grade.

"What do you do with the data?" asked Bart Beal, a Plainfield Indiana School Board member. "There are a group of kids that need to be reached that aren't being reached," he added.

Barr points out that the practice of not promoting children to the next grade if they fail the test can cause serious problems in the future such as escalating drop out rates. "We can't just test them and forget them. We have to use the test to identify kids that need urgent support and then provide it," Barr said.

Building The Perfect Test

A member of the Bush administration said the President intends to provide some funds, possibly $100 million, to the states to help them develop and administer standards based statewide tests, according to Education Week.

While in Washington this week, the Governors met with the Secretary of Education and the President to urge them to pay for the tests. Ridge told Stateline.org that they were receptive to the governors' request. "They understand that for some states, especially those without a statewide testing system, this will be a significant expense," Ridge said.

Griffith agrees, "It is very simplistic for Washington to say let's test everyone in grades 3-8," he said. NASBE is bringing state board members to Capitol Hill in March to explain to Congress how much exams cost, how many years it has taken various states to develop exams, pilot test them, how they cut the scores and determined proficiency levels.

"There is a big gap between state experience and knowledge and Washington's understanding," Griffith said.

Since 1998, Arizona has spent $14.4 million to gin up its testing system. This year, the cost to administer and score the exam is $4.8 million.

North Dakota's Department of Public Instruction is spending $27,750 this year for its test, but the department has asked the legislature for $1.5 million for 2002 to hire a company to develop a new test aligned with the state's standards, according to Laurie Matzke, the state's compensatory education director.

Hidden Costs

Developing an exam, keeping it current, administering it and scoring it are only part of the cost. Collecting and storing the testing data holds still greater expense.

When Texas set up its exam system in the late 1980s it spent $11 million just on the computer equipment needed to track and disaggregate, or break down, the data, according to NCSL's Shreve. He says Texas continues to spend up to $4 million annually to maintain this data which is a separate cost from developing and administering the test.

States will also be required to break down student data into specific categories that will most likely include ethnicity, economic status and gender. Thirty states do not report this data yet, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

"The big issue in this accountability plan of the President's is not only testing students every year, but being able to disaggregate the data and it wouldn't appear to me that $100 million would come close to covering the cost the states would incur to comply," Shreve said. In order to maintain the hardware and software associated with the testing, Shreve estimates will cost each state in excess of $2 million a year.

Going Too Fast?

In 1994, Congress rewrote the rules for states applying for Title 1 money - the largest portion of federal dollars spent on schools. States were given five years to set up learning standards and create tests to measure whether students are meeting them. Students have to be tested at least once between grades 3-5, 6-9 and 10-12.

Almost two years after the deadline, only 17 states have met the Title 1 requirements and 92 percent of the nation's school districts get Title 1 grants. (see States Lag On Federal Education Mandate)

"What is striking is that, six or seven years into this process (Title 1 reforms) between the feds and the state education agencies, we have so few states complying. It is difficult negotiating with 50 different states with 50 different sets of standards it is a nightmare. And if we have taken that long to comply with Title 1 testing requirements maybe implementing the president's proposal will take not one to three years, but seven years it is an enormous undertaking," Shreve said.

Since the standards movement began, Iowa has not set standards due to a strong belief in local decision making. Iowa requires local school districts to test, but the districts pay for it themselves and nearly 100 percent of them use the Iowa Basic Skills test instead of a homemade test aligned to local standards, according to Ron Parker, a spokesman for Iowa's Education Department.

If Bush's testing plan becomes federal policy, Parker says it will "generate a great deal of discussion in the legislature. If it gets to the point where it is seriously discussed in Congress, that will trickle down here."

"This thing is moving so quickly and there is no appreciation for how sweeping a change this really is and what it will mean for states," NASBE's Griffith said. He advocates more discussion on the "purpose" of the federal government in requiring testing and how it can be coordinated with curriculum and standards.

"This is a comprehensive discussion that can't be completed in 30 days as much as the House and the President would like it to," he added.

Education Secretary Paige likened the testing proposal to an annual checkup at the family doctor's office. "It is not meant to be punitive, it is meant to be helpful." Because, Paige says, "once you make (problems with student achievement) visible everyone is compelled to do something about it."

State Spending On Tests 2001

State State Spending On Tests FY 2001 Grades Tested In One or More Subjects Pre-Kindergarten 12 Enrollment (According To Education Week)
Alabama $4 million 3-11 730,000
Alaska $3.5 million 3,6,8 and a high school exit exam 137,000
Arizona $4.8 million 3,5,8,10 - a high school exit exam 872,000
Arkansas $3,249,292 4, 6, 8 427,000
California $44 million 2-11 6.1 million
Colorado $10,779,000 3-10 708,000
Connecticut $2 million 4,6,8,10 554,000
Delaware $3,840,061 3-6, 8, 10,11 114,000
Florida $22,444,605.38 3-10 2.4 million
Georgia $14 million 4,6,8,11 1.4 million
Hawaii $1.4 million 3,5,8,10 185,000
Idaho $700,000 K-3 245,000
Illinois $16,555,000 3-5, 7, 8, 11 -a high school exit exam 2 million
Indiana $19 million 3, 6, 8,10 -a high school exit exam 994,000
Iowa $0 No Statewide Assessment 499,000
Kansas $1,135,000 4-8, 10, 11 469,000
Kentucky $8.1 million 3-12 637,000
Louisiana $9 million 3-11 710,000
Maine $3,354,585 4,8,11 219,000
Maryland $17.1 million 2-6, 8, and a high school exit exam 847,000
Massachusetts $20 million 4, 8, 10 a high school exit exam (Pilot testing 3, 5, 6, 7) 976,000
Michigan $16 million 4, 5, 7, 8, 11 - basis for merit awards 1.7 million
Minnesota $5.2 million 3, 5 ,8 ,10 857,000
Mississippi $7.6 million 3-8 499,000
Missouri $13.4 million 4, 8, 10 893,000
Montana $282,000 4, 8, 11 157,000
Nebraska $1.65 million 4, 8, 11 288,000
Nevada $3.3 million 4,8,10 -a high school exit exam 327,000
New Hampshire $2.5 million 3, 6, 10 209,000
New Jersey $17 million 4, 8, and a high school exit exam 1.3 million
New Mexico $650,000 3-9 and a high school exit exam 324,000
New York $13 million 4, 8, and 5 regents exams in high school 2.9 million
North Carolina $11.3 million 3-12 a exit exam is under development 1.3 million
North Dakota $207,750 (FY 2000) 4, 8, and either 10, 11 or 12 112, 000
Ohio $12,388,000 4, 6, 9,12 1.8 million
Oklahoma $2,539, 656 3, 5, 8 633,000
Oregon $7 million 3, 5, 8, 10 545,000
Pennsylvania $15 million 5, 6,8,9, 11 1.8 million
Rhode Island $2.3 million 3-11 156,000
South Carolina $7,804,137 3-8, 10 - a high school exit exam 647,000
South Dakota $720,000 2,4,8,11 131,000
Tennessee $15.6 million 3-9 and a high school exit exam 909,000
Texas $26,680,523 3-8, 10 - a high school exit exam 4 million
Utah $1.4 million 1-12, 10 - a high school exit exam 478,000
Vermont $460,000 (FY 2000) 4, 8,10 106,000
Virginia $17,968,016 3, 5, 8, or end of course 1.1 million
Washington $7,770,000 3,4,6,7,9,10 1 million
West Virginia $400,000 K-11 291,000
Wisconsin $2 million 3, 4, 8, 10-a high school exit exam 879,000
Wyoming $1.7 million 4,8,11 92,000


Stateline.org conducted a telephone survey of 50 states from February 5-14, 2001, the figures are those reported to the news service from the departments of education for fiscal year 2001 unless otherwise indicated in the table. The amount listed represents only the cost of developing, administering and correcting the state test. We also asked what grades each state tests. Education Week provided the pre-K-12 enrollment in public schools.

Tags: Education