Last school year, Washington state spent more than $16.8 million on federally required reading and math tests, but that only scratches the surface of the full cost of testing students.
The Education Lab team kicked off the new year answering reader questions about money and schools in a feature we call Education Lab IQ (short for Interesting Questions).
With the landmark McCleary case looming over the state Legislature, many of you had questions about Washington’s school-funding tangle. More than 260 readers voted in December on their favorite of six money-focused queries. In early January, we set the stage with a story examining the equity of Washington’s funding system. Last week, we answered the question of how we got into this mess.
Today’s question was the second-most popular: How much does standardized testing cost taxpayers at the state level? In Seattle, how much is spent per student on testing, and are there hidden costs for schools? (Thanks to Sandy Hunt for submitting it.)
The short answer:
The state last year spent more than $16.8 million on federally required reading and math tests in grades three through eight and once in high school. That amounts to about $30 per student.
For context, the entire budget for K-12 schools in 2015-16 was almost $10 billion, so standardized testing accounted for less than 1 percent of that total. However, $16.8 million also could pay the starting salary of about 500 new teachers.
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And that price tag only covers what the state pays two contractors to deliver and score the reading and math tests. It doesn’t count other state-required tests such as those in writing and science.
It also doesn’t count what districts pay to cover costs such as buying the computers students need to take online tests, postage to send results to parents, full-time testing coordinators and the extra pay and time it takes school staff to conduct the tests.
The state doesn’t keep a tally of all those costs, so we’re left with incomplete estimates of the total price tag, even just for the standardized testing required by the state and the federal government.
The long answer:
The full cost of testing is much more than the $16.8 million that the state spent last year for federally required reading and math tests. That’s just the price tag for meeting the requirements set by the U.S. Department of Education.
In 2015-16, the state also spent $2.2 million on science tests in grades five and eight and an end-of-course biology exam in high school. Tack on $1.1 million more for the cost of developing a new batch of science tests that students will begin taking in spring 2018.
An additional $11.9 million went toward the state-required writing exam, a kindergarten readiness assessment, exams to gauge students’ English-language skills, and a set of alternative tests for students with disabilities or who fail to pass the usual state tests required for graduation.
Add all that in, and the price tag tops $32 million.
It could have been higher. If the state hadn’t decided to switch to Smarter Balanced, a set of tests tied to the new Common Core learning standards, it wouldn’t have secured a deep discount for being part of a consortium of states using the same tests.
The Brookings Institute in 2012 predicted a state like Washington, that tests about 500,000 students each year, could expect to save an estimated $3.9 million per year by joining such a consortium.
Deb Came, state assistant superintendent of assessment and student information, said Washington used to spend about $27 per student just to test one subject. Now it’s $30 per student for both the math and reading exams.
Then there are the costs to districts, above and beyond what the state spends.
Many districts don’t have a full tally of those, either.
In an email, Seattle Public Schools said it was challenging to break down its per-pupil testing costs since “Individual school spending on testing software, training, extra hours for proctors, etc. varies from building to building.”
It provided no estimates.
Other large districts in Washington, however, reported their costs for state tests hovered around $4 per student.
Tacoma Public Schools, the third-largest district in Washington, estimated its costs to implement state-required tests include about $60,000 in stipends for school-level testing coordinators, $5,400 for mailing and distribution of testing materials and $30,000 for postage, supplies and other materials.
The state’s sixth-largest district, Evergreen Public Schools in Vancouver, reported a testing budget of $78,500, which includes supplies and compensation for employees who perform work outside of their regular assignment and hours.
However, Evergreen did not include technology costs in its tally, or how much it costs to send test results to families.
Many districts also spend additional money on exams that aren’t required by the state or federal government. In Seattle, for example, younger students take an online assessment to determine whether they need more support or more challenge.
The Seattle district’s 2016-17 budget includes $170,000 for the Measures of Academic Progress assessment that kindergarten, first- and second-grade students must complete. That amount does not include staff training associated with the test.