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Could millions going to high-stakes testing be better spent?

12/05/2012 7:20 PM

12/06/2012 6:16 AM

Testing. Testing.

About $1.7 billion a year for testing?

We aren't talking about a mike check. No, that's how much a new Brookings Institute report estimates that the 50 states and the District of Columbia spend assessing whether kids are "getting" the material covered in their classes.

Too much?

Or not enough?

Brookings fellow Matthew Chingos and a research team collected data from 45 jurisdictions about their testing contracts, mainly to help states look at ways to cut costs as they adopt the Common Core, a set of national standards for basic academic subjects such as English and math.

Texas hasn't adopted the Common Core, but the testing debate engulfs us nonetheless. And it should.

We have to keep asking whether we're spending public money in sensible ways that actually lead to the goal of a properly educated citizenry.

Texas, which is transitioning to the new State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, has a five-year contract with the education company Pearson for $468 million, running from 2010-11 through 2014-15, according to the Texas Education Agency.

Pearson developed the STAAR tests, which cover multiple subjects for grades three through eight plus 12 high school end-of-course exams, and the company is responsible for all testing-related costs such as printing books and shipping materials to and from schools.

As the legislative session approaches and a trial over school funding progresses, there's continuing angst and anger about STAAR, not just because early results aren't looking great but because there's skepticism on whether we're funding better corporate profits but not better-educated students.

Of the 45 jurisdictions studied by Brookings, Pearson has by far the biggest share of the testing market for grades three through nine, including 12 states with almost 8.8 million students and yearly contracts totaling $258 million.

The Brookings report concluded that the nationwide numbers show a "relatively low level of spending on assessment." If the money were instead spent on teacher raises, it would amount to $550 per person, the report calculated. (

But when a Pearson vice president, Steve Ferrara, wrote on the company's "fwd" blog that testing accounts for "a minuscule percentage of education spending," he got plenty of comments begging to differ -- mostly for his laughable estimate that "students in grades 3-8 spend about ten hours on end of year tests ... about a day and a half of school per year." (

"Only someone who has never spent time in a classroom would make this claim. The average school spends two weeks on the state's standardized tests -- because if you know anything about children, it's that their natural inclination is not to sit perfectly quietly and fill in bubbles for six hours straight. ... There is not one piece of research that shows that more testing will lead to higher achievement, nor that threatening schools and teachers with high populations of poor, minority, ELL, and special needs kids that if they don't magically raise test scores they will be punished/fired."

"While the actual tests are ten hours (which by the way, is ridiculously too long for a third grader), the amount of preparation that goes into getting ready for the tests takes away from lessons that should focus on critical thinking. ... Standardized tests not only take money away from student learning; they fuel anxiety. This money should be in the schools, allowing students to be in classrooms with greater academic support, smaller class sizes, more resources available. Corporations should not be making money at the expense of children."

"Any teacher can tell you that standardized tests kill joy, creativity, and individuality, all of which are needed for genuine learning to take place."

"Parents don't want the kind of 'good instruction' test prep, high stakes testing 'offers.' We want our children to: learn to read, then read to learn, then love to learn, then become good, adequately prepared citizens of the world. We want our children to: have recess, art, music, AP courses, internships, sports teams, proms, trips to colleges and wrap around services."

Not one of those comments came from Texas, but they could have -- and those sentiments need to be part of our debate.

Linda P. Campbell is a Star-Telegram editorial writer.


Twitter: @LindaPCampbell

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