August 24, 2015

Md. savings on new standardized school tests are questioned

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Laptop computer by mmole on Flickr

Photo by mmole with Flickr Creative Commons License

By Melody Simmons

For Maryland Reporter.com

This fall, as Maryland schools enter a third year using the Common Core curriculum, state education leaders are touting a trend toward big savings on annual testing.

But out in the field, some in local districts say they are not so sure about the thrift.

Costs associated with outfitting schools with Wi-Fi, the purchase of computer tablets to take the exams, training and even hiring people to serve as graders for manual portions of the exam – at about $13 per hour –are part of the local tab needed to support the PARCC tests given last year in certain grades to Maryland public school students.

Local district leaders are monitoring these and other costs of the PARCC exams, even as State Superintendent Lillian Lowery said in a July 28 report that the Maryland State Department of Education had posted $2.5 million in savings last year over past mandatory state assessments.

The findings are likely to be discussed this coming year as a state commission convenes to study the impact of standardized testing on children in public schools. At a certain level, though, it’s an issue that’s already being scrutinized.

Local systems may bear more costs

“I think with PARCC, there was significant conversation around the costs for local systems related to the technology needs,” said Theresa Alban, superintendent of the Frederick County Public School system and newly elected president of the Public School Superintendents Association of Maryland, which represents all 24 Maryland school districts.

“In fact, there were several discussions about this with our colleagues at MSDE and the state legislature even asked for information about the technology costs associated with PARCC requirements,” Alban wrote in an email.

“That has been a huge lift for districts because it is not just the technology to give a test–it is also the concern of not having enough technology to continue with the instructional use of technology when testing is occurring.”

Alban pointed out that the cost of the test itself is paid for by the state. Lowery said last month that cost had dropped from about $80 to $24 per exam when compared to the costs of administering the Maryland High School Assessment, mostly because the bulk of PARCC is given online.

“However,” Alban added, “school systems absorb the cost of technology to support the online assessment, professional development for staff related to the testing, as well as positions in our central office to support and monitor the testing program.”

In addition, each local system has a “designated local accountability coordinator who ensures compliance with all of the legal aspects of the testing program.”

No central data available

Centrally, there is no data available that shows additional costs of PARCC  — which stands for Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers — to local systems.

Laurie Halverson, an education advocate in Montgomery County who also blogs about public education issues for Change MoCo, said she had informally analyzed local costs associated with the PARCC exam given there. She took issue with Lowery’s report on the cost savings, saying they shortchange the busy and costly work behind the scenes locally to administer the tests.

“Most of the burden has been shifted onto the school districts,” Halverson said. “The report said it was $80 per test versus $24 per test. She’s not giving all the information. I think she was really trying to persuade everyone that PAARC was the way to go.”

Halverson said education officials in New Jersey had recently acknowledged that PARCC cost more there to administer overall. State officials there have said that the cost of PARCC has brought a 10 percent increase over past mandatory standardized testing.

“How could Maryland be less than New Jersey?” she asked.

She added that the PARCC cost issue will be an integral part of the ongoing discussion on the controversial exam.

State board will discuss Tuesday

PARCC is expected to be discussed again on Tuesday when the Maryland State Board of Education is scheduled to meet in Baltimore.

The group will receive a report on the first full administration of the exam, “focusing on concerns identified in the first full year and MSDE’s response to those issues,” the agenda says.

William Reinhard, spokesman for the MSDE, said the state had budgeted $15,663,402 for costs to administer PARCC math and English exams in 2015 with Pearson, the testing vendor. The invoice cost ended up being less, Reinhard pointed out – a total of $13,107,848.

“The savings (were) derived from the fact that so many school systems opted to use the online version,” Reinhard wrote, in an email.

“As for the cost of computers — no system is required to use computers/wi fi hook-ups, etc, for this test.  Systems seemed to prefer the online version. Many systems have been purchasing computers for instruction anyway — Baltimore County, Montgomery County, Washington County, and others have been increasing their investment in technology.  It makes sense — that is how information is shared these days.”

Melody Simmons can be reached at melody.simmons557@gmail.com.