Rapid assessment most cost-effective way to raise achievement

Charter schools, voucher programs, increased educational spending and increased accountability are four approaches policymakers, educators and researchers have focused on in recent years to improve student achievement.

But, a fifth approach–rapid assessment of student learning two to five times per week–is much more cost-effective in raising student achievement, writes Stuart S. Yeh of the University of Minnesota in a recent issue of American Journal of Education.

A clear winner

In a cost-effectiveness analysis he did on the costs and outcomes of these different approaches, Yeh says rapid assessment is the clear winner for its effect size on student achievement. Effect size measures the strength of the relationship between two variables.

Rapid assessment provides nonjudgmental testing feedback to students and teachers immediately after each test. In reading, for example, a rapid assessment system alerts teachers to learning difficulties and also guide students in reading books at appropriate levels of difficulty.

Yeh says he is not affiliated with vendors of rapid assessment programs and has received no financial support from a vendor. His comparison of student achievement effect sizes from studies on the five approaches found that rapid assessment is:

  • four times as effective as a 10% increase in per pupil expenditure;
  • six times as effective as voucher programs;
  • 64 times as effective as charter schools; and
  • six times as effective as increased accountability.

Rapid assessment provides nonjudgmental testing feedback to students and teachers immediately after each test two to five times per week, Yeh writes. In reading, for example, a rapid assessment system alerts teachers to learning difficulties and also guides students in reading books at appropriate levels of difficulty.

Yeh estimates that the annual cost per student of a rapid assessment system is $21.72. This cost covers equipment, reading quizzes, math libraries tagged to state standards and training for teachers and administrators. By comparison the annual costs of other options are:

  • $9.9646 per student for voucher programs;
  • $8,086 per student for a charter school;
  • $1,119 for a 10% increase in educational expenditures (based on total expenditure of $10,464; and
  • $198 for increased accountability ($13 for the cost of assessments and $185 for lost economic output as a result of shift toward standards-based exam requirements).

“If rapid assessment is more effective than the alternatives examined here, an obvious question is why it has not been more widely adopted,” Yeh writes.

Criticism of rapid assessment

Among the criticisms of such systems, Yeh writes, is that they are not instructional programs, do not address the teacher’s role in providing direct instruction and reading strategies, and that they are not balanced reading programs.

Other criticisms are that such programs rely too heavily on multiple-choice testing and external rewards. Reading specialists cite research suggesting that students achieve at higher rates when free reading time is combined with direct instruction in reading activities and reading extension activities.

Math teachers say rapid assessment programs do not replace good instruction, do not foster critical thinking and can be misused. High start-up costs and the fact that state funds may not be approved for purchase of such a program can also pose barriers.

Yeh notes that rapid assessment is neither designed to supplant regular instruction nor to teach critical thinking skills.

“Instead, it is better understood as a tool designed to support teachers, providing useful information about student progress so that teachers may be more effective teachers of basic skills,” Yeh writes.

“The Cost-Effectiveness of Five Policies for Improving Student Achievement,” by Stuart Yeh, American Journal of Education, December 2007, Volume 28, Number 4, pp. 416-436.

Published in ERN January 2008 Volume 21 Number 1

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