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Fourth-grader Paytin Harris

Fourth-grader Paytin Harris logs on to the Smarter Balanced testing site as her class prepares to take the math test at Newman Elementary on Wednesday.

Billings elementary and middle schools improved their average scores on the statewide Smarter Balanced tests, which are used to meet federal standardized test requirements. 

The computer-administered test is taken by students in grades 3-8. 

The district saw a significant improvement in math compared to 2018. About 40.6% of students scored proficient or better in 2019, up more than 2%. Reading gains were smaller, with about a .8% improvement to 42.1% of students scoring proficient of better. 

Those gains seem to jibe with fall-to-spring improvement on internal testing touted by Superintendent Greg Upham, who said earlier this year he thought Smarter Balanced improvements were likely. Billings Public Schools give students NWEA MAPS tests three times a year, and many schools saw encouraging improvements in fall-to-spring scores. 

Upham credited "extraordinary efforts" by teachers and administrators.

"Those things don't happen just because, especially in a big system," he said. "It's a full team effort."

He said the increase represents work like curriculum updates, professional learning communities, and a renewed focus on teaching standards "starting to come to fruition," and that the district aims to use trend data from multiple years to help inform instruction. 

The Smarter Balanced improvements aren't distributed evenly across the district, and scores vary between schools. They largely correlate with the economic status of students' families, following a long-established national trend; schools with a high proportion of students from low-income families score lower than schools with more affluent students. 

For example, math scores at Ben Steele Middle School ticked up to 42.8% of students scoring proficient, while reading scores dipped to 49%.

At Riverside Middle School, math scores dropped to 18.8% and reading scores dropped to 27%. 

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Ben Steele has the lowest amount of economically disadvantaged students, as defined by the Office of Public Instruction, at 15.3%, among SD2 middle schools. Riverside, at 66.7%, has the highest. 

However, trends of improvement or decline spanned the economic spectrum. 

For example, students at McKinley Elementary, which has a high proportion of students from low-income families, improved scores in both subjects, with a major improvement in math. 

At Poly Drive, which has a much lower proportion of students from low-income families, scores declined in both subjects. Scores at Poly Drive were still significantly higher than McKinley.

Upham said that using economics as a justification for score differences can be "a trap." Instead, schools need to focus on what they can do to improve scores to close achievement gaps, he said. 

Most average scores for middle schools declined in Billings. Statewide, middle school scores were a mixed bag; eighth-graders scored worse in reading and math, seventh-graders improved in both subjects, and sixth-graders declined in math but improved in reading. 

Billings elementary schools followed the opposite trend, with most average scores increasing in reading and math. Again, statewide scores were mixed; third-graders declined in both subjects, fifth-graders improved in both, and fourth-graders improved in math but declined in reading. 

Much like overall state scores, the vast majority of schools didn't hit targets for improvement as set in Montana's plan to comply with federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act. 

The plan sets ambitious and unprecedented goals for improvement among federally-defined subgroups of students that historically haven't performed as well on tests. In particular, Montana has long-held achievement gaps between Native American and white students. Other groups like students with disabilities or student from low-income families also score well below average scores for the wider student body. 

Scores released Friday didn't include a subgroup breakdown for individual school districts. However, the breakdown is required on annual report cards for schools issued by OPI. 

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