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Topic: Testing mandates flunk cost-benefit analysis
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Jerry P. Becker

Posts: 16,576
Registered: 12/3/04
Testing mandates flunk cost-benefit analysis
Posted: Jul 3, 2012 2:27 PM
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From The Washington Post [The Answer Sheet by Valerie Strauss],
Saturday, June 30, 2012. See
Testing mandates flunk cost-benefit analysis

By Valerie Strauss

[This was written by Peter Smagorinsky, Distinguished Research
Professor of English Education at The University of Georgia].

By Peter Smagorinsky

According to Wikipedia, cost-benefit analysis "is a systematic
process for calculating and comparing benefits and costs of a
project, decision or government policy (hereafter, 'project'). CBA
has two purposes:

1.To determine if it is a sound investment/decision

2.To provide a basis for comparing projects. It involves comparing
the total expected cost of each option against the total expected
benefits, to see whether the benefits outweigh the costs, and by how

I believe that it would be prudent to apply this process to the
current accountability movement now being administered in public
education, primarily in the form of testing mandates such as No Child
Left Behind and Race To The Top. Although I am not an economist - I'm
an old high school English teacher now engaged in teacher education
at the university level - I believe that I understand the issues at
stake as well as anyone currently employed in the U.S. Department of

First, let's consider the costs. In Texas, taxpayers will pay about
$93 million this year to administer standardized tests to Texas
students . . . or nearly ten times the cost of just nine years
earlier. The Georgia state Department of Education pays McGraw-Hill
about $11 million a year to produce the CRCT, and more than $5.4
million to NCS Pearson for the EOCT; and as listed here, these are
just two of the many tests administered in my home state. The annual
cost of standardized testing in the United States has been estimated
at somewhere between $20 billion and $50 billion.

Some defenders of standardized testing maintain that critics
exaggerate the costs in order to overstate the case against the
accountability movement. Upon further consideration, I must wonder
exactly what is computed to determine the costs of test
administration and scoring: Teacher salaries during test preparation?
The cost of #2 pencils? Operating a school building on Saturdays to
accommodate testing? And so on. With that caution, I'll accept only
the lowest estimate, a mere $20 billion price tag, and proceed from
that assumption. Now, what are we getting for our $20 billion?

* Some of the lowest teacher morale survey responses ever recorded.

* Massive, pervasive cheating on tests by administrators, and by the
teachers bullied into enforcing their pressure for high scores.

* Six-figure bonuses for school superintendents whose scores meet a
minimum standard, no matter what it takes to achieve them.

* Federal penalties for schools caught cheating, denying them
essential operating budgets.

* Students who see their role models on the faculty and in the
administration behave in unethical ways in order to artificially
raise test scores by cheating.

* Curriculum and instruction that focus on fragmented knowledge bits
and avoid time-consuming, process-oriented, insight-driven teaching
and learning.

* Immense profits for textbook publishers who have entered the
competition for designing and administering the tests and writing the
curriculum materials that are aligned with the tested content.

* An institutionalized assumption that poverty is not a factor in
student achievement, in spite of considerable evidence to the

Based on this cost-benefit analysis, I conclude that the
accountability is making education very profitable for a limited
number of publishing companies who, it turns out, have invested
heavily in political connections (e.g., McGraw-Hill and the Bush
family). It also is quite lucrative for school superintendents who
don't get caught cheating, although it can cost them their jobs if
they do get caught. Apparently, their own cost-benefit analysis of
cheating typically leads to high-risk behaviors with high-stakes

Other groups pay for the accountability, and not just through the
taxes they pay to raise that $20 billion annually to support the
testing apparatus. Teachers increasingly dislike their jobs and
consider their work environments to be hostile and depressing.
According to Richard Ingersoll, 40 percent of new teachers nationwide
bolt the profession within five years because of the terrible working
conditions; and a new report by the Education Trust identifies the
"culture" of school-the work conditions - to be the top priority in a
satisfying teaching career, particularly in high-poverty schools. The
primary motive for entering a teaching career and staying in it,
then, has been sacrificed to the accountability movement.

Students as well do not benefit from this approach. Rather, their
education is reduced to an endless series of assessments of their
ability to fill in bubble sheets, at the expense of more extended
thinking such as writing or composing other sorts of texts that they
find useful and meaningful.

I can only conclude that the $20 billion annually spent on testing as
a means of educational accountability is a poor expenditure of our
tax dollars. I would now like to propose a different means of
assessment that I believe has greater validity as an educational
measurement, and will produce a more satisfying teaching environment
that is more likely to keep the best teachers in the profession.
Unfortunately, it has the downside of failing to enrich
superintendents and publishing companies, but I am willing to live
with that unfortunate consequence.

But first, let's keep that $20 billion budget available. Here's how I
would reinvest it, beginning with some suggestions for addressing the
needs of children more than the needs of publishing companies and
other wealthy entities cashing in on the new accountability mandates:

* Provide a good nursing staff, particularly in impoverished areas,
so that kids who live in poverty can undertake their studies with a
reasonable degree of health and balance. Sick, dizzy, aching,
itching, wounded, and distracted children with limited access to
health care or guidance in navigating the health system would benefit
from the immediate care of a qualified health professional.

* Expand free and reduced-price meals for children from homes where
fresh food is not available, and work to improve the healthiness of
the food offerings under these services. Kids who haven't eaten are
very difficult to teach effectively.

* Staff school libraries with knowledgeable, helpful media
specialists who can direct students to books that benefit their
reading and educational development.

In general, invest in school infrastructures so that they are in good
operating order, rather than falling apart at the seams.

Note that I am not calling for increased teacher salaries, although
that would sure be nice. I am proceeding according to the assumption
that for many teachers, good work conditions matter more than a high
salary. So I am starting there, assuming that my $20 billion can only
go so far.

My last suggestion concerns assessment. To be blunt: Standardized
tests are a really stupid way to measure learning. Hardly anyone
involved with education finds them to be valid; they are mostly
believed to be worthwhile expenditures of time and money by people
who have never taught. People like Arne Duncan and Bill & Melinda

I recommend instead that assessment proceed more authentically. Linda
Darling-Hammond, Jacqueline Ancess, and Beverly Falk described this
approach in the mid-1990s, and their ideas still resonate today -
perhaps now more than ever. In their view, schools could institute
such assessments as comprehensive, interdisciplinary projects through
which students embody what they have learned during their studies. A
boy might build a set of cabinets, for example, incorporating
mathematics, physics, chemistry, kinesthetics, drawing, writing,
speaking, and other knowledge and skills in order to design, build,
polish, and then explain the project and what it involves. This
proposal for project-based learning and assessment is taken up in
some schools, such as Simon Hauger's "Sustainability Workshop" in
Philadelphia, where kids build solar charging stations, full-sized
electric vehicles, and other machines to demonstrate their knowledge.
Hauger, I should note, accomplishes these remarkable feats with kids
from West Philly, not from The Main Line.

Now, some might wonder, how can this plan work, when it relies on
such complicated projects and means of assessment? What about the
elegant simplicity of a nice, firm test score? Doesn't a quantitative
test score tell more about a kid's mathematical knowledge than his
ability to measure a cabinet door so that it fits the frame? And what
about the broader community? How will they know how this kid stacks
up against another cabinet builder from Milwaukee? What if their
cabinets both work equally well, albeit for different
purposes-perhaps one to store DVDs, the other to display china? How
will we know who won the Race To The Top under this approach?

Here's where some of my $20 billion budget comes in handy. As part of
a broader effort to increase Internet capacity, some amount - let's
ballpark it at $2 billion annually, 10% of my budget, although I
could be off by a few billion dollars - could be dedicated to
expanding each school's server space, or perhaps link each to a
national database, so that each student's work could be displayed.
What would you rather be able to do: (1) learn that Freddi got a 79
on the CRT (and see if you can figure out what these scores even
mean) or (2) go online and see a web demonstration of the new
wardrobe that Freddi has designed, cut, sewn, and tailored along with
a verbal account of the process she went through and the academic
knowledge that she incorporated into the project?

So, there you have it, one person's view of a cost-effective way to
invest $20 billion in the necessity of educational assessment. It's a
bit more complicated that what we've presently got, just like
learning and life in general. It puts money into classrooms and
school infrastructures, instead of in the bank accounts of book
publishers and the politicians they influence with contributions. It
requires more work of the taxpayer in seeing and understanding
educational outcomes, but the products are multidimensional and real,
rather than paper-thin and abstract. And that new technological
infrastructure could probably serve a few additional beneficial
purposes for school districts beyond the immediate and designated
purpose of publishing assessment results. I'm thinking here of one of
my neighboring counties, where the computers available to teachers
still use Windows 3.0 for their operating system.

I offer this proposal entirely for free, unlike the situation in
states like Colorado where 35% of their federal education money is
paid to consultants. You are free to take it or leave it. But
whatever you do, you can't say that it cost you too much.

Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
625 Wham Drive
Mail Code 4610
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610
Phone: (618) 453-4241 [O]
(618) 457-8903 [H]
Fax: (618) 453-4244

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