Smarter Balanced math test

Students in Amy Thompson's fourth-grade class at Newman Elementary prepare to take the Smarter Balanced math test in 2016. 

Montana's report card for telling the public how schools are performing won't assign an overall grade. Instead, it will focus on comparing schools across individual categories. 

A federal education law passed in 2015, the Every Student Succeeds Act, requires states to create plans to comply with the law and design "user friendly" report cards to judge school quality. 

The Office of Public Instruction passed on an A to F model or other sum rankings.

“They don’t fully reflect the picture of how the school’s performing,” said OPI deputy superintendent of education Susie Hedalen. “We have had many conversations with our partners in education, and we listened to their thoughts.”

Instead, the state will use what's known as a dashboard model. Users will be able to see how a school stacks up in categories like graduation rates, test score growth, college and career readiness, but there won't be any kind of combined comparison. 

Report cards are required to be up and running by the end of the year. Montana's state ESSA plan was approved in January, but didn't lay out the report card's framework.

As states develop their report cards it's unclear exactly how many use a summative ranking, but a report from the Education Commission of the States in 2017 found that 16 states use an A to F scale. Most states use the dashboard.

Critics of the dashboard model have argued that it's harder for parents to understand and sift through multiple measures. Critics of the A to F model have argued that it paints an inaccurate picture of school performance. 

Hedalen emphasized that the rankings will include several different factors other than math and reading test scores, which were heavily emphasized under No Child Left Behind. 

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She said that the final product won't likely be available until December, but she's confident it will be ready before the deadline.

“We will have some prototypes we’re hoping in August,” she said.

The report card is being developed with the same company that built the state's current data system, GEMS, and will be offered on the same platform. Hedalen told legislators that the state is working on a tight budget.

She said that she expects that the report card will meet the state's education goals, but it won't function as a "marketing device" in terms of presentation.

“We don’t feel like that’s necessary or the best use of our dollars at this time,” she said. 

The current GEMS system has a variety of topic-driven dashboards where users can examine the likes of school funding, academic achievement and school staffing. For some topics, multiple schools can be compared at once, but not all. The system doesn't have a reputation for being easy to use.

“It’s definitely going to be a new look and a new format,” Hedalen said. 

The report card factors are laid out in the state's ESSA plan, which assigns point values to certain categories. For example, growth on standardized tests is weighted heavily, and goals are high

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Education Reporter

Education reporter for the Billings Gazette.