Society and Culture, Education

Developing standardized tests: What’s $330 million among friends?

Image Credit: Shutterstock

Image Credit: Shutterstock

As part of President Obama’s hallmark education program, the Race to the Top competitive grant competition, the Department of Education allocated four-year grants totaling $330 million to two consortia of states to develop assessments aligned to the new Common Core state standards.

That money was split between the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC), a coalition of 25 states, and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), a coalition of the other 22 states participating in the Common Core.

Last week, Florida Education Commissioner Tony Bennett expressed his trepidation in hitching the Sunshine State’s wagon to the PARCC test, which is interesting, as Florida is both a governing state and the fiscal agent for the entire consortium.

Alabama has already pulled out of the testing consortia, and there is serious political unrest brewing in Indiana and in states across the country.

If you’re a fan of the Common Core, this does not look good.

In reality, I doubt this is a harbinger for the end of the effort as a whole. But, reading the tea leaves (which is always dangerous), it looks like testing companies like ACT, Pearson, and ETS are eyeballing the Common Core and will swoop in to provide tests.

Is this a good thing? That’s hard to say, maybe the tests will be better, maybe they will be worse. If the hope was that these multi-state coalitions would provide backbone to keep the standards strong, there is a very real risk that individual state arrangements will result in the very lowering of cut scores and proficiency standards that the Common Core was designed to fix.

But let’s not lose the real issue here: we blew a lot of money on tests that may never meaningfully be brought to scale. This begs serious questions about the role of the federal government in paying for the development of standardized tests, and the role that inter-state consortia have in developing educational products.

To give it some scale, that $330 million could pay the salary of 6,111 teachers for a year (at the nation-wide average of $54,000), or could blunt just over 10% of the $3 billion in sequestration cuts felt by the Department of Education this year. It could buy 664,000 of Wireless Generation’s new K-12 specific Amplify Tablets (with two years of subscription fees), or buy 4.8 million Kindles (at $69 apiece) that could save even more money by replacing paper textbooks. I could go on.

But more fundamentally, if these consortia are replaced by for-profits like ACT, Pearson, and ETS, it shows yet again the advantage that profit motive has in product development and scaling. If those companies don’t develop tests that people want, they go out of business. If the consortia don’t, they just take the money and run.

3 thoughts on “Developing standardized tests: What’s $330 million among friends?

  1. The countries that beat us do what with standardized testing and curricula?

    they use govt-sanctioned national curricula and testing because it is more cost-effective than 50 different ones and it recognizes the reality that people are mobile.

    what is it we are actually trying to achieve with private-sector alternatives to the common-core?

    are we basically waving the “it ain’t govt” wand over the issue and saying that because it ain’t the govt it will be “better”?

    that’s the strong case for the private sector?


  2. Interesting article. I have one comment, though: you wrote “This begs serious questions about the role of the federal government in paying for the development of standardized tests, and the role that inter-state consortia have in developing educational products.” No, this doesn’t beg any questions, it *raises* serious questions. When one “begs the question,” the initial assumption of a statement is treated as already proven without any logic to show why the statement is true in the first place. That is not what you meant, of course.

    • One of the little know and little acknowledged functions of DOD is K-12 schools.

      Turns out that military and civilians who are stationed at various military bases overseas have kids that need educational services and that’s where the DOD schools fit in.

      Now the interesting thing is to ask what they do about standardized testing.

      or for that matter what the k-12 curriculum is.

      and a little hint – it is not 50 different curriculums or 50 different standardized tests or even 300 or so for the various bases around the world that had kids to educate.

      further.. the Federal govt DOES establish the curriculum AND the testing.

      is there something to learn there about the govt and standardized testing?

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