The Multimillion Dollar Question for Online Testing: What Will It Cost?

Chief developer of exam program says NJ shouldn’t have to pay much more than current $21 million price tag -- at least to start

computer testing
The advent of statewide online testing in 2014-15 has prompted all kinds of questions. Will school districts have the technology? Will teachers have the training? Will students have the skills?

Add another to the list: Will it cost more?

The chief developer of the test that New Jersey will use, Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), this week tried to assuage some of those worries for customers across the country. In an online presentation posted Monday, PARCC estimated that its testing will cost about $29.50 per student, roughly the same amount as is now spent on average by its 20 member states.

That’s about what New Jersey now spends for its language arts and math testing in grades three through eight and 11, which works out to $21 million in 2012-13. Overall, New Jersey pays $26 million a year for the exams, but that includes science, which won’t be part of PARCC testing at the start.

Still, once the PARCC tests become an annual event for grades three through 11 (adding ninth and tenth grades), New Jersey’s total will come in at about $27 million, by PARCC’s math.

What’s more, the estimate only includes PARCC’s end-of-year summative tests, not exams that it hopes to provide earlier in the year to make it easier to gauge student progress.

The price also doesn’t include a paper-and-pencil test available in the first year for districts that may not have the technology in place for the online exams. These will cost about $33 to $34 per student, PARCC said.

Bear in mind that none of the foregoing figures cover the cost of the technology that districts say they will likely need to test students online during the state’s mandated window each spring, a cost that the state said it is currently surveying.

As of last fall, only half of New Jersey’s school districts said they had the requisite software and half said they had the Internet bandwidth.

The Christie administration yesterday played down any additional costs to PARCC, short or long term, and said that using PARCC’s own estimate, the first year could actually save the state more than $300,000, not counting the technology.

The administration has repeatedly said that the technology purchases are not meant to be exclusive to the testing and should be considered part of the districts’ broader instructional needs. Still, recognizing there are costs involved, the state has offered potential joint-purchasing and other cost-saving programs.

Yesterday, the administration’s message was that the new PARCC testing will be worth the expense, far exceeding what the state tests provide now.

“Through the transition to new PARCC assessments in 2014-2015, New Jersey schools will be able to administer higher-quality assessments that truly measure critical thinking skills, and to provide timely, meaningful data to educators about student performance,” said Michael Yaple, the department’s public information director.

“As we continue to raise the bar for what students need to know to be ready for the 21st century, these new assessments will play a critical role in helping us get there.”

That was PARCC’s message as well. It released a lengthy PowerPoint and a Q&A that played up the value of the new tests in providing districts with quicker and deeper results for their children.

“Our country spends on average more than $10,600 a year for every public school student,” reads the Q&A. “In that context, $29.50 is very little — about as much as half a tank of gasoline in a family-sized car or dinner for four at the typical fast food restaurant.”

PARCC said the costs will cover developing and field-testing the questions, creating the online administration, and scoring the exams. It also said it will release at least a third of the test questions each year — something New Jersey currently does not do and something that raises the price since those questions cannot be reused.

Whatever the ultimate cost for New Jersey, critics have contended that it is just one piece of the expected expense that taxpayers will incur in trying to meet the Common Core State Standards that the new testing will aim to measure.

Various think-tank estimates have put those costs for New Jersey at up to $500 million, when counting all the technology, teacher training, textbooks, and other essentials.