NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Accountability and Education

November 4, 2002

One of the chief arguments against the wider implementation of accountability in American public education -- comprehensive and properly administered testing, well-defined standards, and an effective report card system -- is that it is simply too expensive. In fact, critics claim accountability is so costly it must come at the expense of such educational aims as reducing class size or increasing teachers' salaries.

But one comprehensive study argues that in proportion to the cost of other education programs, the cost of accountability is minuscule.

  • Statewide expenditures range from a low of $1.79 per student in fiscal 2001 (South Carolina) to a high of $34.02 (Delaware) -- while Arizona's fairly comprehensive accountability system, often cited as a model for other states, costs $8.72 per pupil.
  • Even if every state spent as much as Delaware does per student on accountability, this still would amount to only 0.4 percent, or less than one half of 1 percent, of the total per pupil expenditure in the nation's public schools.

Researchers also examined the common criticism that accountability systems result in "teaching to the test."

  • The study notes that annually revised tests and outside proctors who deliver, administer, and return tests to the test-grading company would cost no more than $4 per student, which is less than 0.05 percent (5 one-hundredths of 1 percent) of U.S. school spending per pupil.
  • With such cheap solutions to the problem of teaching the test, there is no reason for any accountability system to have less than sterling integrity.

Thus, accountability is so cheap compared to other educational reforms that almost any cost-benefit analysis will favor it over other reforms.

Source: Matt Nesvisky, "The Low Cost of Accountability," NBER Digest, September 2002; based on Caroline Hoxby, "The Cost of Accountability," NBER Working Paper No. 8855, March 2002, National Bureau of Economic Research.

For NBER abstract


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