March 21 2012

Federal Windfall or Tilting at Windmills for Washington State?

Vicki E. Alger

There is growing concern that the federal Common Core national standards are costly, weak, and unconstitutional. (Also see here, here, here, here, here, and here.) A recent study by Liv Finne of the Washington Policy Center takes aim at the cost portion.

Washington State is currently considering whether to spend $300 million to implement the national Common Core Standards Initiative in Washington. As a condition of competing for federal Race to the Top dollars—which Washington State lost last time around—states must agree to adopt Common Core national standards. Not included in Washington’s $300 million national standards spending spree is funding to overhaul the state’s existing assessment system.

To help cover that expense, Washington has joined 27 other states that make up the federally-financed Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC), which is developing its own test to measure student learning under the Common Core national standards. Washington’s cut to implement the new test is $300,000 over the next four years. In exchange for getting more cash beyond 2014, Washington must promise to scrap its test and use the federally-sponsored SBAC test instead.

Finne found that the cost of administering the federally bankrolled SBAC test is $20 per student. In contrast, the cost to administer the widely used and respected Iowa Test of Basic Skills is about half as much, $10-$15 per student. In all, Finne explains, “The annual cost to the state of Washington for administering the SBAC test in grades three through eight and in high school would be $21 million. The cost of administering the Iowa Test of Basic Skills in these grades would be only $15.75 million.”

Washington Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn opposes the Iowa Test of Basic Skills because he insists it is not aligned with the national standards and doesn’t meet federal requirements. Trouble is Iowa, also a member of SBAC, received full federal approval about five years ago to use the Iowa Test as part of its accountability system. The test has since been updated and is aligned to the national standards. Switching to the federally-supported SBAC test now would require a seven-fold increase in the Iowa per-student assessment cost.

By now it should be clear that chasing after federal education dollars is more like tilting at windmills—while students and taxpayers get stuck with the bill.

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