Fifth grade students in the East Village neighborhood of New York, United States.
Fifth grade students in the East Village neighborhood of New York, United States. - 
Listen To The Story

The Washington, D.C. headquarters of PARCC seem pretty quiet for an organization about to face its own big test. Starting next week, millions of students will take the first of two rounds of new assessments the group developed.

“It’s like two or three minutes before game time and we’re ready to hit the road running,” says Jeff Nellhaus, director of assessment for PARCC, which stands for the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers. It’s one of two large groups of states that have spent more than four years and $360 million in federal grants building new tests tied to the Common Core state standards.

To explain where all that time and money went, Nellhaus brings up a sample problem on his computer from a fifth grade English test. Students are asked to read a passage from a novel called “Moon Over Manifest.”

It’s copyrighted, so there are royalties to be paid. PARCC also pays a testing company to write questions that reveal how well students have mastered various skills, like reading comprehension.

“Literally dozens of people are looking at the question after that,” he says. The question goes through several phases of review, field testing and revision, with the meter running the whole time.

All that costs around $1,000 for a single multiple-choice question, says Scott Marion, an advisor to PARCC and associate director of the Center for Assessment. A more open-ended question can cost up to $5,000 to develop, he says.

“What started out as a little innocent process of somebody sitting in a room writing a question to a passage is now this sort of Rube Goldberg-esque kind of process that it goes through to actually land on the operational test,” he says.

Every year, the process repeats, as old questions go to the testing graveyard and new ones replace them.

It’s a necessary investment, says Bob Rothman with the reform group Alliance for Excellent Education, as long as tests carry so much weight. They’re used to judge not only students, but teachers and schools.

“If you really want this information about how students are performing, then just buying something on the cheap won’t get you very much,” Rothman says.

Still, to keep costs down, PARCC made a shorter test with more multiple choice questions than originally planned. The price works out to about $24 per student, around the average PARCC says states paid for tests in the past.


As a nonprofit news organization, Marketplace is on a mission that drives what we do every day: to increase economic intelligence across the country. But we can’t do it alone. Become a Marketplace Investor today, in whatever amount you choose, and your donation will go twice as far, thanks to a dollar-for-dollar match from The Kendeda Fund.

Become a Marketplace Investor today – in whatever amount is right for you – and keep public service journalism strong. We’re grateful for your support.

Follow Amy Scott at @amyreports