Billings' spring ACT scores look brighter than the previous year's, though still below the statewide average.
District-wide, scores rose to 19.56, higher than the past two years, but down from 2016's peak of 20.1. The Montana University System schools generally require a 22 or higher on admission requirements.
The scores include only students who took the test when it was administered for federal accountability, not students who took the test again in efforts to raise their score.
Within Billings, scores followed a typical trend. West had the highest average score at 20.1, followed by Skyview at 19.3. Senior's average score was 19.2. The distribution tracks with the economic breakdown of the schools; according to Office of Public Instruction data, 34% of students at Senior are "economically disadvantaged," while only 18% at West are, and 27% at Skyview are. That matches long-established national trends showing that economic advantage is strongly linked to academic success.
In 2018, Billings began administering a Pre-ACT test to sophomores designed to give them earlier exposure to the format of the ACT and to try to point district leaders where students need to improve.
The first year of results show an encouraging trend, which Billings administrators reviewed during an August meeting. Students in 2019 scored higher than students in 2018 in every subject except for science, with the steepest improvements in English.
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"I'm not saying that we're teaching to a test by any means," SD2 superintendent Greg Upham said. "Our teachers did a phenomenal job of really dissecting those standards. ... That's an enormous accomplishment. That's not easy to do."
Upham also credited the "consistency and collaboration" established through Professional Learning Communities, collaborative teacher work groups that meet on early-out Wednesdays.
Upham, who's beginning his second year as Superintendent, was known for pushing PLCs in Helena and for emphasizing how ACT scores are affected by progressions — for example, how middle school math courses transition into high school and which math classes students should take before the sitting for the ACT.
District assessment coordinator Roger Dereszynski emphasized that elementary and middle school success trickle up and are essential to improving test scores.
"It's not a miracle that's going to be made by our high school teachers," he said.