Doing the Math: PARCC Tests Will Cost State 10 Percent More Than Before

Biggest reason for increase is that 200,000 more NJ students are taking standardized exams; administering tests online helps reduce expense

More testing means more spending. And New Jersey this year will spend $28 million – a 10 percent increase – on statewide student assessments, led by the much-debated online PARCC exams that debuted this month.

The bulk of that spending is accounted for by the state’s contract with Pearson Education Inc. for administration of the PARCC tests. The company could earn $108 million over the life of the four-year deal.

The state last week released copies of that contract to media outlets, including NJ Spotlight, in some cases two months after the information was first requested under the state’s Open Public Records Act.

In a press briefing yesterday explaining the contract, state education officials said that $108 million figure in probably on the high side. They said the first year payout to Pearson should be about $22.1 million once there is a final accounting of the number of students taking the tests and in which formats.

Subsequent years’ costs will be negotiated annually based on the number of students taking the tests both in New Jersey and nationally, officials said.

The state Department of Education officials also stressed that the per-pupil cost of $22.50 is less under PARCC – a fully computerized exam — than for the state’s previous paper-and-pencil exams, which cost the state about $28.50 per student.

But close to 200,000 additional New Jersey students are taking PARCC, bringing up the cost.

The bottom line is that the $22.8 million spent this year for PARCC – including a $775,000 administration fee — will be about 10 percent more than the $20.3 million spent last year on the state’s previous NJASK and High School Proficiency Assessment.

The balance of the testing costs includes the continuation of the state’s previous science exams for fourth and eighth grades, along with a biology test still given in high schools. In addition, the state is in the final stage of phasing out the HSPA, with the last students going through its final testing and appeals this school year.

But as state officials, politicians, educators and parents debate the merits of PARCC testing – including thousands of families having their children sit out the tests — the release of the contract brought out numerous interesting details about costs involved in administering the test as well as scoring the exams and retaining that data.

On the technical side, the contract was actually a joint agreement with New Mexico, one of 11 other states that have remained in the PARCC consortium and took the lead in contracting with Pearson to administer and score. That contract is under court appeal in New Mexico; it’s not clear how that case could affect New Jersey’s agreement.

Regarding the PARCC tests themselves, a major cost consideration was whether they would be administered by computer or with pen-and-paper, which cost $9 more per pupil. Initially, New Jersey had estimated as many as half of its students would be taking PARCC during the first year on paper, driving up costs. In the end, though, 98 percent of students are expected to be taking the tests online.

“That brought down the costs significantly for New Jersey,” said David Joye, the state education department’s director of administration and budget.

But that is just the beginning of potential cost variables, including different options for grading the tests and then providing those scores to schools and families. Officials said there are 68 such variables, in all, in the Pearson contract.

Under New Jersey’s contract, for example, students taking the language arts exams will have their written answers scored by people working for PARCC.

But technology is weaving its way into the scoring process as well: This year, 10 percent of the test responses will be verified with “artificial intelligence” software, officials said, adding that they are exploring whether to expand use of that technology in future years to reduce costs.

“It is currently being explored to whether we can replace any of that with automated scoring,” said Jeffrey Hauger, the state’s director of assessment.

While automated scoring is hardly unusual in standardized testing, it is nonetheless controversial. On the other hand, traditional grading has hardly been controversy-free, as questions have long been raised about the backgrounds and education levels of the people scoring student work.

Asked yesterday whether he had a preference, Hauger did not commit, although he noted that automated scoring is obviously faster and cheaper.

“The negative side is the perception that automated scoring can’t be as good as human,” Hauger said. “That perception is out there, and we (in New Jersey) wouldn’t have fully automated scoring until we had more information that it was good as human.”

Officials said yesterday that about 40 percent of test questions will be released to the public following administration of the test this spring. There had been some early talk of releasing all of the test questions, but that would be expensive proposition requiring development of a whole new set of questions each year.

New Jersey also paid more for a couple of add-ons to the contract, including 12 technology readiness visits by PARCC representatives over the last year and six regional training workshops across the state.

Also being considered but not yet decided are additional costs for retesting students who do not pass the exams on the first try and would likely take the tests again in the summer. There is already a provision for individual appeals challenging test results.