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Smarter Balanced math test

Fourth-graders, from left, Brayden Quessenberry, Siya King and Nathan Stewart prepare to take the Smarter Balanced math test at Newman Elementary in March 2016. 

Montana's annual statewide test results showed largely static scores for students in elementary and middle school and little progress toward closing achievement gaps as called for in the state's plan to comply with federal education law.  

The Smarter Balanced test offers a one-time snapshot covering every school in the state. The test is often used to compare academic achievement among schools and is used as a measuring stick for federal education officials. But school administrators often question the value of the test's result, and many schools have pivoted to focusing on different tests given several times a year, which administrators say is more useful for improving instruction. 

The test, which measures math and reading proficiency, is given to students in grades 3-8. In 2019, schools reported that about 98% of students took the test. 

In math, three grade levels improved compared to 2018; three grade levels scored worse than in 2018. Reading scores also reflected a 3-3 split, though with different grade levels.

Math scores ranged from 48.5% of students scoring proficient in third grade down to 36.5% in eighth grade. Reading wasn't quite as bouncy; 53.5% of fifth-graders scored proficient, down to 47.3% in fourth grade. 

“While one test does not represent a student’s full potential, these results do show where we can start supporting improvement," state Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen said in a press release. "State assessments in combination with local measurements provide data for teachers to support individualized student success.”

Schools that score poorly aren't punished, but the scores strongly affect a scoring rubric used to measure schools' performance. Schools that score poorly on the rubric are identified for additional support, which could include options like additional training for teachers or bringing in state specialists.

Montana switched from a state-specific test to Smarter Balanced in 2015. The first year of testing was plagued by technical issues, but the platform has been stable since. Smarter Balanced was widely recognized as a harder, more rigorous test than the old assessment. 

Long-term trends have been elusive. For example, fourth and fifth-grade math scores have risen a bit each year, but other grades have bounced around. Reading follows a similar pattern; fourth-graders improved each year, but other grades yo-yoed. 

The test also shows little evidence that the state is on track to meet goals prescribed in Montana's plan to comply with the Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaced No Child Left Behind in 2015. 

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Groups like American Indians, students with disabilities, and students from low-income families have long scored lower on measures of academic achievement than their white peers. The plan calls for steep improvements in those "subgroups" to help close that gap; while the improvement goals for white students aim for between 1.5% and 2.3% more students to score as proficient each year, students in subgroups identified in the plan have goals between 2.8% and 4.1% each year. 

That would be an unprecedented rate of improvement in Montana — by a lot. Some educators questioned whether the plan was fair or realistic. Federal officials required "ambitious" improvement goals, and singled out the focus on achievement gaps when approving Montana's plan

Since 2016, math scores for American Indian students have actually declined, though they held steady at 15% of students scoring proficient from 2018 to 2019. 

Reading scores for American Indian students did increase from 2018 to 2019, nudging up from 20.4% to 21.2%. In both subjects, scores are far below the targets set by the ESSA plan. 

The plan also calls for rapid improvement among students with disabilities and those from economically disadvantaged families. The scores don't show that either group is on track. 

More special education students improved in math, but only by .2%, up to 14.3% scoring proficient. Reading scores inched up from 16.8% to 17.4%. 

Economically disadvantaged students' scores dipped in both categories. Math scores went from 29.5% to 29%, and reading scores went from 37.7% to 36.7%. 

A brighter spot was English Language Learners. While improvements weren't as steep as the ESSA plan calls for, student math scores increased from 8.5% to 9.4% and reading scores increased from 8.5% to 10.6%. 

White students didn't hit their improvement goals, either. Math scores ticked up from 46.3% to 46.8%, while reading scores slid from 55.6% to 55.2%. 

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