Testing Costs a Drop in the Bucket

Matthew M. Chingos:

The cost of standardized tests, long assailed by testing critics as too high, has resurfaced in the debate over reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act currently underway in Congress. The National Education Association (NEA) has argued that funds spent on testing could be “better spent on high-quality early childhood education, health care, after-school programs, and support services.” Recently, the New Jersey Education Association released poll results indicating that a majority of voters and parents think that “too much money is spent on testing.”

Testing critics usually point to estimates of total spending on assessments; a commonly cited figure—$1.7 billion spent by states each year—comes from a report I wrote in 2012. [1] But what these claims always miss is that, however calculated, spending on testing is barely a drop in the bucket of a public education system that spends over $600 billion per year.

If testing were eliminated entirely, what could schools do with the $1.7 billion saved? Very little, it turns out. Teacher salaries could be increased by one percent or pupil-teacher ratios could be reduced by 0.1 students. The $34 per student spent by states on federally and state-mandated tests simply isn’t very much in a system that spends about $10,000 per student. Put in the context of the NEA position, $34 per student would not buy very much early childhood education—only eight hours of preschool per student in Florida to be exact. [2]