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The Sunk-Cost Effect on Standardized Testing

I know why you're reading today's column: What in the world is the sunk-cost effect and what does it have to do with standardized testing? The sunk-cost effect is a classic economic dilemma ("That Sunk-Cost Feeling," The New Yorker, Jan. 21). In short, it means that once lots of money and energy have been expended, the costs are simply too great to ignore. "This means that we often end up sticking with something when we'd be better off cutting our losses." In fact, it frequently follows that we invest even more money and energy because we can't bring ourselves to acknowledge we were wrong. It's throwing good money after bad on a grand scale.

Standardized testing, in my view, is a perfect example. The cost of tests, testing services and test-prep materials is estimated to be more than $2.3 billion a year and rapidly growing, according to Eduventures Inc. But we refuse to admit that the evidence does not support our fanatical commitment to these tests ("Problems With The Use of Student Test Scores To Evaluate Teachers," Economic Policy Institute, Aug. 2010). Instead, we blindly continue to spend more money on them in the delusion that by doing so our original decision will somehow be vindicated.

It won't.

The worst part, however, is not just the waste of taxpayer's money, but the negative effect the policy of full-speed ahead has on students. I won't bother rounding up the usual suspects in the standardized test case. They're familiar enough by now. Instead, I wonder if we've given any thought to what could be accomplished if the billions were allocated to other needs. For example, reducing class size would give students the individual attention they deserve but are unlikely to get when teachers have 30 or more students.

I realize that the standardized testing juggernaut is formidable, largely as a result of a masterful campaign to sway public opinion against public schools. Yet unless we take action now to apply the brakes, appalling outcomes loom down the road ("How to save taxpayers billions of $$ - really," The Answer Sheet, Oct. 24, 2012). But altering course is highly unlikely to happen because of the sunk-cost effect.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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