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Common Core Test Costs and Georgia Politics on Collision Course?

Georgia is one of several states where there has been significant political activity against the Common Core State Standards. Actions of note include the state GOP's decision to officially oppose common core; the introduction of a bill by GOP Rep. William Ligon to require the state to drop the standards (a bill Ligon indicated he'll reintroduce in 2014, even though it went nowhere this year); and at least one district's opposition to instructional materials aligned to common core.

Now there is concern, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, about the costs of the upcoming common-core tests being developed by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, and whether legislators will be willing to increase state spending to pay for these tests, and if so, by how much.

The situation highlights the political vulnerability the tests could face if legislators and others opposed to the standards decide that they are a way to attack the standards themselves in a less direct fashion. In fact, they already appear to be facing that threat.

According to the paper, Georgia spends $25 million now on all assessments in K-12, including end-of-course exams and financial assistance to students to take Advanced Placement tests. PARCC reportedly set a maximum cost to states of $18.50 per student (though PARCC would not confirm that figure). Based on the number of students who took English/language arts and math tests in Georgia this year, the Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests (CRCT), the hypothetical cost of the PARCC tests by themselves would max out at $27.5 million. (The CRCT is normally given to grades 1-8, but this year, due to "budget constraints," it was only given in grades 3-8.)

The state superintendent, John Barge, a Republican, told the newspaper he couldn't promise his state legislature would come up with that kind of new money, and that he disagreed with the supposed per-student cap during discussions within PARCC. But we don't know how much of that $25 million pays for the No Child Left Behind assessments in grades 3-8 and high school. That cost would provide a real baseline to compare with PARCC tests. I've asked the Georgia department for that figure, and will report it if I get it.

In addition, people with knowledge of the assessments' development have indicated to us that the AJC report misrepresents the comparative costs of PARCC and Georgia's current state tests. PARCC is set to release its cost figures for tests later this month. But until that happens, it's not clear which dollar figures, if any, are the right ones to use.

From the outside, it might look as if Barge registered his protest about costs as a step towards dropping the use of PARCC tests (as Oklahoma did recently), and that perhaps he's decided this is a way to sacrifice something to anti-standards activists as a way to preserve common core itself. But a spokesman for the Georgia department, Matt Cardoza, told me that the superintendent has long registered concern about the costs of PARCC, before political agitation against common core in Georgia began in earnest. Perhaps Gov. Nathan Deal, a Republican and common-core supporter, might begin looking at the tests skeptically in the future for political purposes.

By the way, opponents of the standards in Kansas have also recently focused their attention on problems they see with the tests. (A Kansas anti-common-core bill similar to Ligon's legislation didn't make it out of the legislature this year.) And of course, Oklahoma made headlines for recently announcing it would not be using PARCC tests, as I mentioned. In that state, there's even a spat that's developed between Superintendent of Public Instruction Janet Barresi, a Republican, and some district superintendents over whether "district issues" contributed to the state's decision to drop the tests.

In general, there are three potential problems that could increase states' concerns about the tests:

• One is the cost, as we've seen in Georgia, even if the numbers being discussed are premature or inaccurate. Even in states where common-core support remains strong or decent, will legislators have the political will to increase appropriations for the new tests? Remember, the $360 million in federal grants that support the work of PARCC and Smarter Balanced expire on Oct. 1, 2014.

• There's the question of whether states have the technology to handle the new assessments, a problem that's reared its head this year in Oklahoma, Kentucky, Indiana and elsewhere.

• And then there's the question of how much time the new tests are going to take, which could represent a big increase in testing hours for some states—up to 10 hours, as my colleague Catherine Gewertz reported in May. You'll recall that Sec. Arne Duncan's offer last month of "flexibility" for states on high stakes for teacher evaluations also included relief from the "double testing" in 2013-14, in which students would be taking their normal state assessments as well as field tests for the common-core-aligned assessments. Will states decide that no assessment, however informative and useful, is worth that amount of time?

As it happens, state bills to drop the common core outright have fallen flat in legislatures. But could hammering away at the tests be a way for common core opponents to accomplish some of their aims, at least in an oblique fashion? Are the tests the weakest link, politically speaking, in the "chain" of common core?

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