Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent by states and school districts on standardized tests every year, money that could be used for purposes far more helpful in improving student achievement. What are those purposes? Here are some suggestions, from Jim Arnold and Peter Smagorinsky. Jim Arnold recently retired from the superintendent’s position of the Pelham City Schools in Georgia and he blogs at drjamesarnold.com. Peter Smagorinsky is Distinguished Research Professor of English Education at the University of Georgia. His essays are archived here.
By Jim Arnold and Peter Smagorinsky
Last fall journalists exposed the wretched conditions at Trenton High School in New Jersey. Brown water oozed from drinking fountains, rodents roamed freely, teachers and students became physically ill from being in the building, mold covered the walls, roofs were leaking, ceilings were crumbling onto the students and teachers below, streams of water ran down hallways, and morale throughout the building was, not surprisingly, well below sea level. Conditions reached the point where they met the state criterion of being “so potentially hazardous that it causes an imminent peril to the health and safety of students or staff.”
Governor Chris Christie, however, issued a stop work order that ended an initiative to make essential repairs on this school and over 50 others that were dangerously unsanitary and just plain dangerous, not because of the menace of free ranging, gun-toting ruffians and thugs but because the decrepit buildings themselves required so much maintenance.
While halting repairs on schools, what the state did invest in was accountability for teachers. No one was accountable for the conditions of the schools until a citizen uprising and news coverage forced a building initiative that fortunately will provide the people of Trenton with a modern facility. But while dodging chunks of falling ceilings, treading cautiously around scurrying rats, and attempting to teach through building-induced illnesses, teachers remained accountable to the standards that Education Secretary Arne Duncan believes can determine their fitness for the classroom.
We live in Georgia, another state in which schools are grossly underfunded yet consultants and testing corporations are living large off the investment of state funds in holding teachers accountable, regardless of their work conditions or the life conditions of their students. Most schools cannot afford to run a full year, with roughly two-third cancelling 10-30 days every year and requiring teachers to take “furlough” days to make budget. Further, schools in our state have 20th century connectivity infrastructures and technology affordances, limiting the degree to which kids can learn what they’ll need to know to navigate and thrive in our emerging, digitally driven society.
What we need, however, according to the people making educational policy these days, is not money dedicated to provide a full school year—and many people, evidently unaware that most Georgia schools cannot afford 180 days of school, are pushing for longer school days and years—but a more rigorous curriculum and more tests, preferably more rigorous tests. We use the term “rigorous” ironically given that the rigor of curriculum and assessment are claimed again and again but never established in any clear or responsible way.
Last year the state of Georgia Department of Education spent a little over $18 million on End of Course Tests in high school and Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests (CRCT) in lower grades. Plans to replace the CRCT with yet a newer testing regime, Georgia Milestones, are underway to the tune of $108 million. Georgia BOE minutes for the May 2014 meeting report that “the State School Superintendent [has been authorized] to enter into a contract with TBD at a cost not to exceed TBD in State/Federal funds for development, administration, scoring and reporting of a new student assessment system.” TBD seems guaranteed to add significantly to the millions already spent on standardized testing in Georgia.
Regardless of expense, the Georgia Measures of Achievement and Progress (GMAP)will still be administered at the end of the school year and student scores will be returned to schools far too late to have any positive effect on teaching and learning. Since the tests are administered near the end of each school year rather than at the beginning, it’s safe to assume their purpose is political rather than diagnostic.
Just assuming that Georgia will spend a nearly $140 million on testing and test development next year—and we are only including End of Course, CRCT, and GMAP expenditures, which are only a few of the tests administered in Georgia—what else might the Georgia education department do with that money?
For starters, let’s say the money be equitably distributed to districts for the express purpose of hiring more teachers and reducing class sizes for required classes, or even to re-staff faculties with teachers of music, art, drama, and vocational electives that have been eliminated by austerity cuts. The state salary schedule for first year teachers with no experience is about $31,600. Assuming benefits for those teachers equals about one-third of that figure, salary and benefits for a beginning teacher would be around $41,000. Given the reduction in the number of teachers employed statewide over the last several years and the availability of teachers with experience, let’s put that figure at an even $50,000 per teacher per year. That’s $20 million, which would hire an additional 400 teachers statewide—admittedly not much in a state with roughly 2,300 schools, but a step in the right direction.
Funding for school nurses has also been reduced in recent years. Stephen Krashen argues that school nurses are among the best investment that communities can make to improve education, given that kids are better students when they are healthier. There are about 2,500 public schools in Georgia, and the 2014 budget for nursing services is $32,741,000. That averages around $13,000 per school for nursing services. Even adding $20 million to that figure raises the amount per school to almost $13,900 for nurses. Certainly not a large increase, but significant in reducing the amount of local funds used to pay for essential nursing services.
Transportation costs for systems have increased exponentially over the last 10 years. Combined with a yearly reduction in state money provided for this essential service for schools, bus fleets have aged significantly for most systems. An extra $20 million for transportation would allow the replacement of 210 buses across the state and provide at least some additional peace of mind for parents depending upon transportation to and from school for their children.
There are other places where the money currently spent on standardized testing could be better invested: mental health services for students, remedial instruction, building repair and replacement, instructional supplies, and countless more where a few millions of dollars would help replace programs and services cut over the last 10 years of underfunding and neglect in the name of educational reform that is neither educational nor reformative.
The point is that the millions spent in Georgia on testing could be spent in ways that could have an ameliorative effect on the causes of poverty and thus a beneficial effect on schooling. Standardized testing in all its forms merely serves to point out the effects of that poverty again and again with no solutions presented except to blame teachers for the consequences. How many tests does it take to learn that middle class and affluent children tend to do well on standardized tests and poor kids tend not to?
In this brief essay we have not provided a complete portrait of the funds spent on curriculum and assessment developed by corporate providers, or the costs involved in funding schools properly to do their jobs. A more detailed examination of the labyrinthine state budgets might identify even greater amounts currently being diverted to testing, testing, testing and far more alternative investment possibilities than we have outlined here. Putting so much into the dubious testing enterprise has not only provided misleading information about the achievement of students and impact of teachers, but done so at great expense to far greater needs. We find this misplacement of priorities to serve as a sad illustration of the grotesque values and beliefs that drive the current accountability policies governing education.