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Thursday, April 9, 2009 | Switching from old assessments to new ones was meant to improve how San Diego Unified teachers gauge what children are learning, where they are lagging and how to help them. But the change was not painless. Nor was it free.
As of December, less than halfway through the school year, the school district had already spent $710,000 on testing — roughly 80 percent of what it shelled out on tests the entire previous year — according to a voiceofsandiego.org analysis of San Diego Unified data. Replacing two of the tests was estimated to cost more than $600,000 this year in new booklets and testing kits with score sheets and tablets that students read from. Other tests were expanded to more grades. Staffers have estimated that San Diego Unified will spend nearly twice as much on tests this year compared to last.
But budgets are bleeding in San Diego Unified and testing is already under the microscope. Unsatisfied with the limited and tardy data supplied by testing under No Child Left Behind, the school district imposes a number of additional tests of its own, aiming to zero in on problems quickly so teachers have time to fix them. Teachers are deeply divided on whether the tests are worth their time. Their complaints have already convinced the school district to pare back on testing, jettisoning two planned tests that they decided were redundant or unnecessary.
Despite the recent bump, testing costs have actually decreased over the past four years, according to data supplied by San Diego Unified, which include costs for printing, materials and the staffing for central offices devoted to testing.
Manpower and paperwork to get both state and school district tests out to schools, graded and gathered cost more than $1.1 million four years ago. Those costs dipped year by year to roughly $880,000 last school year — a 21 percent drop over time. Karen Bachofer, the district’s executive director of research and evaluation, chalked up the overall drop to San Diego Unified merging two testing departments into one and using its staffers more efficiently.
But costs have crept higher this year after San Diego Unified purchased new tests with new booklets and materials. Staffers estimate that with more tests ahead in the spring, total costs for testing will reach $1.6 million this year, an increase that still falls far short of its $2.3 million budget. The added expenses included roughly $380,000 for kits for a new reading and writing test, each of which costs $220 and lasts indefinitely. Another test was estimated to cost $264,000 in new materials.
Some teachers feel the new tests sapped up too much of their teaching time. One test was panned by more teachers than praised it, according to San Diego Unified surveys. The chorus of teacher complaints eventually led school board member John Lee Evans to push for a halt to mandatory school district testing. It failed to win over a majority of the board.
“The intent wasn’t ‘Oh, let’s add a bunch of tests,’” said Erin Gordon, who oversees assessment in the school district. Two planned tests have already been canceled and Gordon expects more changes in store as a school district committee studies the quantity and usefulness of testing. “It was thoughtful and it had a purpose. But maybe the way it happened wasn’t the best.”
San Diego Unified opted to replace the old tests based on the recommendations of a committee made up of principals, teachers and managers. Their goal was to overhaul testing in the school district to better target and diagnose students who were falling short. It already had tests but they were imperfect. One test could tell teachers what level students were reading at, Bachofer said, but not whether they were tripping over vocabulary or unable to decode each word. Another test had been sitting in classrooms for years, allowing some kids to see the same reading section over and over.
The school board narrowly approved the changes last May in the midst of budget cuts. San Diego Unified also invested in a new computer system that dices testing data more easily, allowing teachers to track the progress of individual students and compare their classes to others.
Many raved about the new tool and say that the tests required by San Diego Unified are a boon to their work. Sharon Johnson, who teaches 4th and 5th graders at Marvin Elementary in Allied Gardens, said the assessments help her tell which lessons children don’t understand and reteach them while the topic is still fresh in their minds. No Child Left Behind tests aren’t returned until her children have moved on to the next grade. Data gleaned from tests is prized nationwide by reformers who want to zero in on individual problems and hold all schools to the same standards.
The uptick in spending happened as San Diego Unified stared down a second consecutive year of budget cuts. Faced with a shortfall of $147 million, the school district has frozen spending at schools and proposed a vast array of cuts from furloughing employees to making classes larger. A few of its potential cuts, such as eliminating sports for high school freshmen to spare $140,000, would save less than what San Diego Unified spent on the new tests.
Some testing costs are unavoidable under No Child Left Behind, which requires San Diego Unified and other school districts to institute state-mandated tests. California helps offset those costs by paying school districts a few dollars for each test given, but the payments are delayed by several years and do not cover the whole cost of testing. And the costs of other tests added by San Diego Unified are not offset by any extra state funding.
San Diego Unified is still awaiting state payments of more than $235,000 to ease the cost of one batch of tests that ended last year, another delayed payment of nearly $198,000 for an English language test, and nearly $52,000 for the high school exit exam given last school year — a total of roughly $485,000 for that school year. That is only a fraction of what the state and school district tests cost. Last year the expenses ran to $880,000.
Nationwide, estimates of the total cost of standardized testing vary dramatically, depending on which costs are included in the calculation. Proponents have calculated the costs as low as two dollars per test — a bargain among school reforms — while opponents have factored in the costs of teacher time and estimated the costs as high as $1,000 each.
“People who want to minimize the cost will describe only the costs of administering and scoring the tests,” said Robert Schaeffer, public education director for the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, a Boston-based nonprofit that is highly critical of standardized testing. “But the true costs include what administrators and teachers spent to prepare for the test and go over scores. Nobody has come up with a formula to measure that with any accuracy.”
Data supplied by San Diego Unified included only the costs paid directly by the school district and not those borne by the state. They do not include a calculation of teacher time, which has taken center stage in the debate over testing in the school district. Most of the tests take less than two hours to administer, according to San Diego Unified surveys.