Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

Do State Tests Make the Grade?

by Pauline Vu, Staff Writer

It’s hard to overestimate the importance of standardized tests in public schools today. Grade advancement, high school diplomas, teacher bonuses, principals’ jobs and school reputations can all hinge on whether a student picks the right answer.


For example, a look at various fourth-grade reading tests shows wide differences. Texas’s 2006 reading test is entirely multiple choice. Ohio’s 2005 test includes several short-answer questions, such as asking for the main conflict in a passage; in another section, students fill out a cause-and-effect chart for a certain problem. Massachusetts’ 2007 test was arguably the most rigorous: Students had to answer four long open-response questions.


Some states have fewer questions that test writing skills. A main reason for that is money. Gary Cook, Wisconsin’s former testing director, said it could cost a thousand times more to score an essay question than a multiple-choice question. In 2005, the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center reported that 15 states relied entirely on multiple-choice questions in their reading and math tests. Some of these states gave separate writing tests in certain grades. (On Jan. 9, the center reported that 12 states use only multiple-choice questions on their math and reading tests.)1

“People who don’t have their heads stuck in the instruction don’t realize it’s not cheap to do this really well,” Cook said of test-making. “And right now, I don’t know many legislatures that are very open to spending money or raising taxes to develop these kinds of instruments.”

Last year, the federal government gave states $407.6 million to help pay for testing. But states have said that falls short. In January, a federal appeals court revived a lawsuit that charges the federal government does not provide enough money for states and districts to meet the law’s requirements.


In the 2006-07 school year, Virginia spent in state and federal money about $11.92 per test, while Washington state spent about $17.74 per test. But these amounts also include the cost of additional tests the states administered that were not required by No Child Left Behind.

South Carolina doesn’t even calculate a “per pupil” number because not every student is tested. Despite these disparate ways of measuring spending, one thing is known: Of the total education budget combining federal, state and local money, less than one quarter of 1 percent goes to testing.

“States are not putting any more resources into the testing infrastructure, and as a result, we are getting testing on the cheap, and that is working against No Child Left Behind’s efforts to produce high-quality assessments that promote higher standards,” said Thomas Toch, the co-director of Education Sector, a nonpartisan think tank. “If we’re going to make tests the driver of quality in public education, then we need to invest to ensure that we get tests that are up to that task.”

On the whole, however, state spending on testing has shot up since George W. Bush’s education plan became the law of the land. In early 2001, a year before No Child Left Behind was enacted, states collectively spent almost $423 million on standardized tests, according to a report. During the 2007- 08 school year, states will spend almost $1.1 billion on these tests, according to Eduventures Inc., an education industry research firm.

Read the full story at

This article was excerpted from “State of the States 2008,”’s annual report on significant state policy developments and trends released Jan. 16. Download a PDF version of the entire report here.


1 See “Standards, Assessments and Accountability.”

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