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As new online tests tied to Common Core standards have been plagued by technical problems, schools in Montana can decide whether to continue giving the exams, the state Office of Public Instruction said Wednesday.

However, the state's two largest districts — Billings and Great Falls — said they will continue to administer the Smarter Balanced, or SBAC, exams as planned.

The decision to make SBAC exams voluntary was announced by Superintendent Denise Juneau in an email to school leaders.

Students around the state have been taking the tests since March 30, after technical problems prompted an eight-day delay. The system then crashed Tuesday when too many students from Montana and two other states using the same version of the test tried to access it.

"Every time this happens, every time there's a shutdown, it really causes a lot of issues at the local level, particularly with scheduling," Juneau said.

The OPI has recommended that districts halt testing through Thursday while the vendor hired to oversee the process, Measured Progress, troubleshoots its system.

Juneau said she is still encouraging schools to administer the exams this spring but opted to waive mandatory participation as a way to protect schools that have been disrupted by problems. 

"I know the frustration level was getting really high," she said.

Under the No Child Left Behind Act, schools are required to administer annual tests to all students in grades three through eight and once in high school. If fewer than 95 percent of their students take the exam, schools can be sanctioned.

It's unclear whether the state's move to make testing voluntary this year could bring consequences from the U.S. Department of Education, which provides millions in federal funding each year to Montana schools.

Earlier this spring, the department invited states that are switching to new tests to apply for waivers that would exclude student scores from the 2015-16 school rating system known as Adequate Yearly Progress, or AYP.

Montana took up the department's offer and will likely amend its petition to include another exemption from the 95 percent participation requirement, Juneau said.

The tests are designed to gauge how well students meet the English/language arts and math standards laid out in the Common Core. Annual state tests are a key school accountability measure under NCLB.

Most schools said they intend to continue giving the exams to all students, while some will cancel testing and others were planning to scale back.

Of the 141 schools that informed the state of their testing plans by Wednesday afternoon, 22 percent indicated that they would cancel or limit who takes them, said Deputy Superintendent Dennis Parman. Montana has more than 800 public schools.

In Laurel, only students in grades four, eight and 11 will take the exam, said Linda Filpula, director of curriculum, instruction and assessment. Problems with the test were expected to make scheduling very difficult, and the district already uses other assessments that provide teachers with student data, she said.

Technical issues haven't prompted Billings School District 2 officials to alter the district's testing plan, Superintendent Terry Bouck said in an email to administrators.

"We value the assessment and resulting student achievement data it will provide, and feel the results we obtain will ultimately improve teaching and learning for all involved," he wrote.

Bouck urged principals to have alternate plans ready in case the tests don't work during the scheduled times.

Elysian K-8 school principal Barbara Frank said the school had only a small interruption Tuesday, but otherwise SBAC testing has gone well. She plans to "forge ahead" with all 100 or so students scheduled to complete the exam.

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"We would love to see what our student results are," Frank said.

Without full participation this spring, Montana schools will be without a complete set of student test scores for the second consecutive year, even though many students have taken the eight-hour exams twice.

Montana was one of a handful of states that scrapped its previous state exam a year early to participate in an SBAC field test in 2014. The field test was intended to ease the transition to an online exam and ensure schools had the equipment to administer it.

But the problems seen this spring stem from the testing platform itself, which was developed by a consortium of states and the American Institutes for Research, and from the vendor under contract to administer the exams.

The OPI is currently reviewing its contracts with Measured Progress and the SBAC consortium, Juneau said. The Measured Progress contract is worth around $2 million and is covered by a federal grant.

Derailment of SBAC testing also threatens to stoke backlash against the Common Core. As the standards have become increasingly politicized, states and test-makers are under pressure that the new tests tied to them go smoothly.

Connecting the test rollout to the standards they measure is misguided, Juneau said.

"This is really not Common Core," Juneau said of the tests. "This is No Child Left Behind."

"Common Core is about good teaching that's in the classroom," she said.

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