ERIC Identifier: ED385611
Publication Date: 1995-10-00
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Assessment and
Evaluation Washington DC.
Cost of a National Examination. ERIC/AE Digest.
"A summary of 'Student Testing: Current Extent and Expenditures, with Cost
Estimates for a National Examination.' Report of the United States General
Accounting Office, GAO/PEMD 93-8"
Recent proposals from the federal executive branch and private groups have
drawn unprecedented attention to the idea of a national examination for
elementary and secondary students. The House Committee on Education and Labor
asked GAO to look at school testing as it exists today, describe its nature,
estimate its extent and cost, and assess how a new, national test might affect
Most of the debate on expanded national testing
has centered on major issues of what to test, how to test, and how to use the
results. Not much attention has been given to date to the question of how much
and what kind of testing there is now. Yet the likely success of future testing
may be related to the size, nature, and cost of current efforts about which
there exist only wide-ranging, conflicting, and highly uncertain estimates.
These range from 30 million to over 127 million standardized tests administered
per year, at a cost of from $100 million to $915 million. The congressionally
mandated National Council on Education Standards and Testing (NCEST) declined to
provide a cost estimate in its report recommending a national testing system,
and others' estimates have ranged from a few million dollars a year up to $3
GAO wanted to obtain valid national data on at least all systemwide tests;
that is, those given to all students at any one grade level in a school
district. This excludes tests that only selected students take, such as
individual teachers' exams, special education diagnostic tests, or college
admissions exams. In the fall of 1991, GAO surveyed testing officials in all the
state education agencies and in a random sample of U.S. school districts. The
survey included questions about each test administered and about the testing
officials' views on the balance of costs and benefits in their current testing
effort, on trends in the field, and on the idea of a national test. GAO received
completed questionnaires from 74 percent of the local districts in the national
sample and from 48 of the 50 states. The results are generalizable nationwide.
RESULTS IN BRIEF
In 1990-91, U.S. students do not seem to
have been overtested. Systemwide testing took up about 7 hours per year for an
average student (half in direct testing and half in related activity) and cost
about $15 per student including the cost of the test and staff time.
The typical test was the familiar, commercially developed four- or
five-subject multiple-choice exam. The less common performance-based tests--in
which students write out some answers--cost more (an average of about $20 per
student), but were considered by some testing officials to be an improvement and
a preferable direction for further development. GAO estimates the overall cost
of systemwide testing in 1990-91 at $516 million.
Three models are commonly discussed for future national testing, including
(1) a single national multiple-choice test, (2) a single national
performance-based test, and (3) a decentralized system of clusters of states,
each cluster using different performance-based tests. GAO estimated that none of
these would cost as much as the multi-billion-dollar estimates that some have
put forth. The first option would be least expensive ($160 million per year).
The third (clusters), the one advocated by NCEST, would likely cost about $330
million per year after about $100 million in start-up development costs, and the
costs could be expected to decline over time. Any choice among the three options
would involve trade-offs. For example, the least expensive multiple-choice test
would be familiar and provide the most comparable data, but would be the most
duplicative and might not be as valued by many state and local testing
officials. Clusters of performance tests would cost more and would not
necessarily be comparable, but may be better linked to local teaching and would
be viewed more favorably by many testing officials.
Those officials responding to GAO's survey did not oppose more tests, but
expressed concerns over the purpose, quality, and locus of control over the
content and administration of further tests. They preferred tests of high
technical quality that would be useful for diagnosing problems at the state or
local level. However, many respondents expressed opposition to the general idea
of a national test.
The Current Extent and Nature of School
Though the average student spent only 7 hours annually on systemwide testing,
GAO found wide variation and totals as high as 30 hours a year. A majority of
systemwide testing was state-mandated, with state education agencies developing
most of these tests, usually in conjunction with test development contractors.
Almost 60 percent of the tests used were commercially available, with
achievement tests from three publishers accounting for 43 percent of all
systemwide tests. Testing remained traditional in format, with 71 percent of all
tests including only multiple-choice questions.
GAO's survey showed that new approaches to testing are finding limited
acceptance. By 1990-91, performance-based tests (with the exception of fairly
common tests asking for a writing sample) were in use in only seven states or in
specialized applications such as readiness tests for very young students.
However, these seven states, and several others that have developed high-quality
multiple-choice tests, have developed fairly sophisticated testing programs and
have gained an expertise in test development that could be useful to the
development of a national examination system. Most of these states, moreover,
employed local teachers and administrators in test development and scoring and
reported that their involvement facilitated acceptance of the test and the
alignment of the test to the subject matter that teachers actually teach.
The Current Cost of Testing
The $15 per-student average cost of testing included $4 in purchase costs and
over $10 in state and local staff time, but costs varied for different types of
tests. In a subset of states where GAO obtained the best comparative data,
multiple-choice tests averaged less than half the cost of performance-based
tests ($16 versus $33, respectively).
In budgetary terms, testing rarely accounted for more than 1 percent of
school district budgets, averaging about one-half of 1 percent of state
education agency budgets. For only three tests in the country did state costs
average more than district costs.
The Future Cost and Extent of Testing
GAO estimates that a national test modeled on the common multiple-choice
tests, if taken by 10 million students a year, would cost about $160 million; a
national performance-based test similar to those now developed in several states
would cost $330 million per year, or almost two thirds of the $516 million GAO
estimates is now spent on systemwide testing. Start-up development costs could
add another $100 million.
But GAO found new costs would vary depending on the plan. Looking at
decisions made in school districts that in the past faced a choice between an
old test and a new state-mandated test, GAO found that 82 percent dropped the
old test when the state's largely duplicated it, but were much more likely to
use both if the tests differed in purpose or coverage. If the same pattern held
true in response to a national test, a national multiple-choice test would cost
the districts only $42 million more and 15 minutes per student in new costs, all
from additional testing in 26 percent of U.S. school districts. The other 74
percent of districts would simply drop a current test, replacing it with the
national test. Because many fewer districts use such tests now, a national
performance-based test would add more new costs in money and time: $209 million
and 30 minutes per student.
Testing Officials' Views on Present and Future Testing
Seventy-five percent of state testing officials and 43 percent of local
testing officials considered the net benefits of their present testing programs
to be positive, and most believed that these benefits would continue or even
increase if more tests were added.
Majorities mentioned performance-based testing as a positive trend and
confirmed a trend away from norm-referenced multiple-choice tests toward tests
with a higher degree of curriculum alignment. Less than half the states had a
curriculum that their districts were obliged to follow, however, while 10 states
had unrequired curricula.
The survey revealed significant opposition to the concept of a national
examination system. Forty percent of local respondents and 29 percent of state
respondents saw no advantages to a national system, and they forecast some
disadvantages, particularly a potential for misuse of test results. Thirty-two
percent of local respondents and 53 percent of state respondents, however,
specifically cited the potential for comparing test scores nationally as an
advantage of a national testing system. When asked under what conditions they
would decide to use a voluntary national test, they rated most important whether
or not the test was of high technical quality, useful to their needs, and not
costly to them.
Matters for Congressional Consideration
GAO believes that if a decision is made to implement a national examination
system, the Congress may wish to ensure the involvement of local teachers and
administrators in test development and scoring and of state testing officials in
planning and implementation. This should build support and improve the
likelihood of success as state and local educators will probably play a
considerable role in the administration of any national test.
If the Congress wishes to encourage the development of a well-accepted and
widely used national examination system, it should also consider means for
ensuring the technical quality of the tests. Test quality will require an
enduring commitment and sufficient resources.
Madaus, G.F. (Nov, 1991) the Effects of
Important Tests on Students: Implications for a National Examination System. "Phi Delta Kappan," 73(3), 226.
National Commission on Testing and Public Policy (1990) "From Gatekeeper to
Gateway: Transforming Testing in America." Boston: Boston College.
Shavelson, R.J., Baxter, G.P., & J.Pine (May, 1992) Performancer
Assessment: Political Rhetoric and Measurement Reality, "Educational
Researcher," 21(4), 22.
United States General Accounting Office, "Student Testing: Current Extent and
Expenditures, with Cost Estimates for a National Examination." Report GAO/PEMD