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Testing: To Profit or Not?

January 6, 2013 11 comments

I had an interesting discussion on Twitter Friday morning with two current Oklahoma district superintendents about testing. It began with Clinton Public Schools Superintendent Kevin Hime asking if high-stakes testing would be as popular if it were done by non-profits.

I responded that technically, the College Board (SAT, PSAT, AP exams) and ACT, Inc. (ACT, PLAN, EXPLORE) are non-profits. A quick bit of research on the state Open Books website allowed me to find the following state expenses for 2012 for testing contracts:

Company

Status

Expenses

NCS Pearson For Profit $14,200,000
CTB McGraw Hill For Profit $1,600,000
ACT, Inc. Non-Profit $1,500,000
College Board Non-Profit $900,000

Keep in mind that this includes all state contracts for testing – common education, higher education, and Career Tech. We should also note that the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education pay for all eighth grade students in the state to take the EXPLORE exam and all tenth grade students in the state to take the PLAN.

Pearson and CTB will be changing positions in 2013, with CTB being awarded the newest testing contracts, which include a suite of benchmark tests. The total amount will increase if Superintendent Barresi gets the legislature to approve a bump from $11 million to $16 million for the next fiscal year. Of the more than $18 million represented above, K-12 testing contracts are the vast majority of expenses.

However, the ACT and College Board share of testing revenue from our state increases when you consider the fact that students pay for those tests themselves. In 2012, more than 29,000 Oklahoma seniors took the ACT. At $35 a test, this accounts for another $1,015,000. This also doesn’t account for underclassmen taking the test any money spent on test preparation. Meanwhile, more than 23,000 Advanced Placement exams were administered at the end of the 2011-12 school year. Each of those exams cost $89, although some of the expense for that was borne by the state. According to this cost-benefit analysis report to the legislature, the SDE spent almost $600,000 on test fee assistance. This leaves about $1.5 million in test fees for parents.

A quick look at both the College Board and ACT websites shows that with more testing on the horizon, there is also more opportunity for Oklahomans to spend money with them – either directly or indirectly. College Board has Accuplacer, and a $1.99 smart phone app that you can also purchase. ACT has WorkKeys, a “job skills assessment system that helps employers select, hire, train, develop, and retain a high-performance workforce.”

College Board’s new president was a key architect of the Common Core State Standards. Something tells me they’re going to be a larger player in K-12 testing in the future. ACT is developing a new assessment system that will “span elementary grades through high school.” This system will launch in 2014.

By the way, I find it amusing that this system will be introduced in a “launch.” Since we currently don’t have a space program, we need something to help us imagine. As a nation. For the children.

Ultimately, we’ll be forcing our kindergarten students to endure high-stakes tests. Don’t laugh. There’s real momentum for this happening.

I remember watching a 60 minutes exposé in the 1990s critical of teachers “teaching to the test.” It’s a funny complaint from society. Policy makers create more laws calling for high-stakes tests. We evaluate schools and teachers by those tests. We spend crazy money on those tests, both as taxpayers and as parents. We use the results of those tests to plot the future of our children. We even use test results to determine more tests that students need. Teachers have not created this obsessive assessment culture. They’ve just been hired to work within it.

At this point, I don’t distinguish between the crass profiteers leeching off of public education or the so-called non-profits. They all make off with gobs of money. They all have seats at the policy-making table (a place where teachers aren’t allowed to speak). They all have been complicit in the destruction of what school used to be: a place for children to explore and pursue their passions.

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