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Swearing in Ceremony

Superintendent of the Office of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen takes her oath of office Jan. 2 during a swearing-in ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda.

Thom Bridge, Independent Record

HELENA — Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen said Friday that some student test data submitted to the U.S. Department of Education weeks before she took office were “falsified” and out of compliance – assertions her predecessor says are misconstrued.

“They did not meet state and federal reporting standards and misrepresented student proficiency,” Arntzen said, noting she shared the “discovery” with the Board of Public Education earlier in the day. “It was reported that all Montana (high school juniors) were proficient.”

Denise Juneau, who was superintendent for eight years before Arntzen took office this month, said she was never contacted and could have clarified the situation to Arntzen, who she said was “jumping to conclusions.”

Arntzen told the Board of Public Education that her office had “recently uncovered” that the state's decision two years ago to drop standardized testing of high school juniors in favor of offering the ACT college admission test was noncompliant with federal and state proficiency standards.

Eric Feaver, president of the state teachers union, said the fact the ACT did not meet federal standards was not new. He said, and Lee Newspapers has previously reported, that the board and education advocates “were all in agreement” to move forward with ACT testing despite being noncompliant.

"It's a good way to deflect attention from her inability to decide what she's going to do with Graduation Matters," he said.

Montana is one of a handful of states seeking to take advantage of a federal education law that allows them to replace standardized tests in high schools with recognized college entrance exams, like the ACT and SAT, so long as they can make a successful case for the switch in a peer-review process.

Juneau has argued the ACT helps families make better choices about college readiness while reducing the amount of over-testing in schools. The tests are funded by a grant from the Montana University System's GEAR UP program. 

The ACT grades test-takers on a numerical scale, while federal and state standards require student proficiency be reported with categories such as improficient, novice, proficient and advanced proficient.

Arntzen said Montana received a one-year waiver to deviate from federal reporting standards, with the understanding that in the future ACT scores would be converted to compliant proficiency categories. She said her office has been unable to find any documentation that the previous administration sought to convert scores or sought to extend that waiver to cover this year.

In reporting statistics to the U.S. Department of Education, Arntzen said the section of the online form about high school juniors’ testing proficiency had been filled out with “level 3.” Her office could not find documentation to show that information was accurate and did not know why it contained “dishonest” information.

When Arntzen reported the discrepancy to the federal education officials, she said an unnamed staffer had been surprised to receive a proficiency report in December from Montana at all because it is known the state has not required those students to do standardized testing. Arntzen said the false reporting “hurt the integrity of Montana.” She said the discrepancy had been reported to her new chief legal counsel “by a whistleblower.”

“It was a reckless decision two years in the making,” Arntzen said. “Federal funding for our Montana schools is at risk.”

Asked by reporters whether federal officials had raised the specter of lost funding, she said no. Rather, she said it was a broad characterization on her part that any misreported information could lead to the “extreme” measure of lost funding.

Federal education officials did not return a request for comment.

Juneau said she doubted federal officials would pull funding for the state for noncompliance since it has known about the ACT use for years, and knew it would be discussed in an upcoming February peer review process, which other states have used to receive federal permission for administering the ACT in lieu of standardized tests. She said the online federal reporting form could not be submitted with blank fields but also limited the entry to single-digit figures. ACT scores range up to 36.

“It only allowed us to put in numbers one way…We put ‘three’ across the board. That’s an issue with the federal reporting system. We go back and forth with the feds a lot about forms,” she said, downplaying any characterization that federal officials would see the entry as malicious. “They know we were using ACT and were one of the states looking to move forward with that.”

She noted that details of the ACT results have been released to the press and the public each year it has been used.

Arntzen said it was unacceptable to “falsify information to streamline a federal form” and said Juneau’s team should have sought permission in advance not to complete that portion of the form, or notified federal officials about the placeholder entry.

“It’s no excuse,” she said.

She also said her office could not find any materials prepared for the February peer review on the matter of using the ACT to comply with federal standards, but would work to “keep that promise” to Montana’s juniors that the test will continue to be provided for free. The grant funding the tests expires at the end of 2018.

Arntzen said she “wishes to make this issue transparent to the public as she begins to correct the problem.”

Arntzen took office earlier this month, the first Republican to hold the post in decades. Democrat Denise Juneau had been superintendent for eight years.

“This office has been run one way for 30 years,” she said, describing her election as proof voters wanted change. “Two weeks into this job I’m seeing misinformation at the highest levels of the previous administration.”

Juneau, meanwhile, says Arntzen is learning as she goes. Juneau said she has offered to help with the transition, but has not gotten a call.

"My hope is she gets better, figures out the work of the agency, and doesn't just jump to conclusions," Juneau said.

The Gazette's Matt Hoffman contributed to this report.


Projects reporter covering Montana, Montanans and their government.