Following the lead of education savings accounts to cover student assessment costs would put more information, choice in parents’ hands

Lindsey Burke

If you wanted to determine, tomorrow, if your child was on track in reading or math, where would you turn? What if you wanted to know how your child was doing in a particular math concept, like the Pythagorean theorem?

There are some companies that exist for such purposes, like DreamBox Learning, which provides math curriculum, lessons, and formative and summative assessment. But as a regular practice – parents getting outside audits of their child’s understanding of certain subjects and topics, and getting external assessments untethered from the district school system – it is far from the norm.

As I wrote recently in a paper for the American Enterprise Institute, parents should have the resources to obtain regular audits of their child’s learning, and such audits should become commonplace. In the era of COVID-19 learning, this will become more critical than ever.

The National Center for Education Statistics pegs total average per-pupil spending at $14,439 per child in public schools across the country. To get a child from kindergarten to high school graduation costs taxpayers more than $187,000 on average over those 13 years. This is an incredibly costly expense with a high potential for information asymmetry, which can occur when one party has better information about a product or service than another party.

In nearly every other aspect of our lives, such costly investments typically have an associated appraisal market to assure the buyer of the quality of their investment. Yet, no similar market exists for K-12 education. From home appraisals to horse appraisals, external audits of the value of a product provide important information to the end user. We should apply that concept to K-12 education by separating learning assessment from learning delivery.

In normal (non-COVID times), parents largely are recipients of data on public school performance on state assessments, received at the end of the year, providing little information on their child for any necessary education course corrections. They also have access to state- or district-level school report cards, which provide information on the school, not the student.

There also are data from measures such as the National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP) that provide state-to-state and some district-level assessments. But while those are useful to education researchers, they are less informative for parents.

For many parents, the most useful information on their child’s progress comes from parent-teacher conferences. Yet these tend to be held infrequently throughout the year. Grades on student homework provide additional information but can be subjective or even inflated.

Teachers may provide information on student progress through portfolios or performance assessments, and schools provide formative and interim assessments. For example, in many schools, parents receive quarterly reports and then report cards at the end of the semester. Some schools also use private assessments, including tests like the PSAT and external assessments for gifted students or English as a Second Language (ESL) exams for non-native English speakers.

And more and more schools are using tools like Schoolology that allow for real-time reporting on student grades. But these evaluations aren’t universal and may not always focus on student understanding of discreet concepts.

So, while parents are not entirely in the dark when it comes to how much their children know, they largely do not have day-to-day, actionable information about student progress. Creating an appraisal market for K-12 education could provide immediate, granular information on student performance for parents that is actionable and timely. To do so, states should provide funding for diagnostic and evaluative testing to parents separately from the per-pupil dollars spent on their child in district and charter schools.

When Arizona designed and implemented its groundbreaking education savings account (ESA) program in 2011, they were on to something. Allowing ESA funds to be used for assessments and diagnostic tests, along with the accounts’ other uses (e.g., private school tuition, online learning, special education services and therapies, etc.), was a helpful solution.  

As micro-credentials grow in popularity, freeing-up funding in the form of ESAs will enable more students to get specific certifications of learning and knowledge acquisition. ESA-style accounts also enable parents to pay directly for diagnostic tests at testing sites unrelated to the school in which their child is learning.

Making ESAs a reality for every child would enable families to easily acquire real-time, external audits of their child’s learning. And it would likely foster a growth in the supply of such diagnostic tools in the market.

To date, five states – Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee, and North Carolina – have education savings account options in operation, enabling parents to pay for external audits of their child’s learning if they choose. Other states should follow suit. Short of that, states should at least allow parents to leverage a small portion of their child’s state per-pupil funding to pay for assessments and other diagnostic tools.

Information on their child’s progress is a powerful tool. When combined with education choice options, it can be the key to finding options that are the right fit for them, setting them up for success long term.

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