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A new plan for evaluating the quality of Montana schools calls for whopping test score improvements compared to past scores, especially for students who typically struggle on tests.

The goals target a provision in the Every Student Succeeds Act that requires schools to administer standardized tests and work toward “ambitious” and “achievable" goals. Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen, who pulled back an earlier plan submitted under previous Superintendent Denise Juneau, rolled out the plan Wednesday. 

Early feedback from the Department of Education on other states' plans that have been already submitted has focused on setting a high bar for test scores; a handful of states have had their plans criticized as not being ambitious enough.

Previous feedback “was not as public and it was not as strong,” said Montana Rural Education Association executive director Dennis Parman, who previously served as OPI’s assistant superintendent under previous state Superintendent Denise Juneau.

With the feds — so far — taking a surprising hard line on interpreting a law that was initially hailed for flexibility and local control, it leaves states balancing ambition with attainable goals that will be used to help rank schools. Schools that score poorly aren't punished but are identified for additional support, which could include options like additional training for teachers or bringing in state specialists.

During preview sessions of the ESSA plan, OPI director of special programs Susie Hedalen showed scenarios calling for a 5 percent and 7.5 percent improvement among students scoring non-proficient on exams to scoring proficient. Nevada, which uses the same structure, submitted a plan using the 5 percent improvement figure, which the feds found sufficiently ambitious in initial feedback.

When Hedalen unveiled those scenarios at MREA’s general assembly meeting in June, the group suggested a 3 percent threshold instead.

OPI settled on 4 percent — for now. Hedalen and Arntzen both said the goals are achievable during a Wednesday press conference.

“Honestly, I think the superintendent and those who are advising her, I think they’re stuck in the middle,” Parman said, between ambition and achievability. “In the context of what’s been going on with other state plans and the department, it looks like they’re willing to fight that fight, and that’s encouraging.”

State track record

Compared to previous Montana test results, the new goals are lofty; between the 2006-07 and 2012-13 school years, students scoring proficient increased 2.3 percent on statewide math scores and 2.8 percent on reading scores. That test is no longer given; it was officially replaced by Smarter Balanced tests in 2015, which are generally recognized as more rigorous and yielded lower scores.

In the new plan, schools are asked to increase the amount of proficient students statewide by 12.6 percent in math and 10.8 percent in reading by 2022 — about a 2 percent increase each year in both subjects.

That’s similar to a goal that Billings trustees set for NWEA MAP testing in 2014. Progress has been hit and miss: in reading and math, three of seven grade levels tested hit goals that track the same students from grade-level to grade-level. Some groups that improved overall had years when they dipped; some groups that didn’t hit their overall goals had individual years of progress. 

In a series of meetings analyzing test scores and graduation rates during the past school year, several trustees expressed interest in modifying the goals, questioning how realistic they were.

“You want to see improvement in the school overall,” said Trustee Gordon Klasna, a principal at Lockwood’s Eileen Johnson Middle School, which also administers the NWEA tests, in October. “To put a set number on it, I hesitate a little bit.”

“We wanted a target that was lofty,” SD2 superintendent Terry Bouck said at a January meeting.

Bouck hadn’t had a chance to review the new goals when the plan was released Wednesday.

“We will look at whatever growth goal is out there for subgroups,” he said. “We’re going to work our tails off.”

At the meetings, several SD2 principals cited the need for more teacher training to improve scores. The district is implementing professional learning communities, teacher planning groups aiming for a more cohesive education strategy, next school year.

But federal aid for teacher training could be in jeopardy. While the U.S. House largely ignored President Donald Trump’s proposed education budget, they did keep his $2 billion cuts to Title II, which funds professional development.

Subgroups

ESSA also requires schools to break out test scores by sub-groups, certain groups of students based on factors like race, class and disability status.

Some sub-groups, like students with disabilities and Native American students, typically score lower on standardized tests, so their four percent improvement goal results in a steeper rate of improvement. In math, students with disabilities are asked to improve by 18.5 percent, and Native American students are asked to improve by 17.9 percent, compared to 11.6 percent for white students.

It’s unclear in OPI’s plan how subgroup and average scores could be combined into a category score, but test score proficiency levels are slated to make up 25 points for elementary schools and 30 points for high schools on a 100-point rubric. Officials are also required to develop a public report card, which includes progress toward subgroup goals. OPI hasn’t developed the report card yet; Arntzen said Wednesday she wanted the report card to reflect positive things schools are doing.

The higher expectations for subgroups target long-held achievement gaps, a major focus in ESSA.

“ESSA as a synonym, it could be equity across all subgroups,” Arntzen said. She and Hedalen said OPI would dedicate resources to helping schools improve scores. 

Bouck noted that legislative action to increase education spending is typically hard won in Montana; unfunded mandates are "always a concern," he said. 

OPI expects the plan to undergo revision before it’s submitted to the feds by a Sept. 18 deadline, and officials emphasized that they still want feedback.

Parman said he’s been impressed with OPI’s responses to ideas so far.

“I do believe that the office is genuinely interested in getting public feedback,” he said. “It’s trite to say it, but it’s a process. We’re a long ways from knowing what this is going look like at the end.”

“We have to be able to make sure that we infuse an element of hope,” he said. “If those goals are reasonably unattainable, then you lose hope.”

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Education Reporter

Education reporter for the Billings Gazette.