Twice a year, virtually every student in grades 3-8 in Montana public schools takes the Smarter Balanced test, a standardized exam that fulfills a requirement of federal law.
Standardized testing is used to compare schools' performance and to gauge schools' improvement or decline over time. But such tests have limitations and negative side effects. The test doesn't track individual students' progress, but instead compares this year's third grade to last year's third grade.
Generally, average students from economically disadvantaged families score lower than the average students from middle- and upper-income families. All students are tested in the same way, but student test taking skills vary. Teachers also must spend class time preparing students to take the standardized tests, which are all taken on computers. Students who use computers a lot may be more comfortable and proficient at taking these tests.
It's easy to fixate on standardized test scores, but citizens must not lose sight of the more important measures of academic progress: How individual students are learning week by week, year by year.
Billings Public Schools uses a test called the NWEA to track each student's progress in math and reading skills three times per year. These scores are available to parents and guardians so they can work with teachers and counselors to help each student achieve his or her full potential.
The first round of NWEA testing this fall showed "extraordinary" progress across the district, according to Superintendent Greg Upham. "We saw some of our largest gains in our title schools," which have a high proportion of students from low-income families. He added that the testing also showed literacy issues remain.
The NWEA shows parents how their child is performing compared to other children in their grade across the country. Parents need to know whether their children are working at grade level or not.
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This Thursday or Friday all six Billings public middle schools are holding parent teacher conferences. If you have a student in grade 6, 7 or 8, be sure to check with the school to find out when parents can meet with teachers.
All Billings parents can access their student's grades and attendance records online through the Power School Parent Portal. Yet Upham says only about 50% of parents are active on the website.
"We want 100%," Upham said. "Contact your school and they'll get you set up."
Upham, who was a teacher and principal before becoming a superintendent, used to tell parents at freshmen orientation "know who your student's teachers are, know the class schedule, is there a big project coming up and when is it due." That active parental involvement is important throughout the school years, even though high school students are trying to push away, Upham said.
With updated information from teachers, parents can more effectively participate in their children's education. Improvement and good grades should be commended and encouraged. Poor grades and missing assignments are best addressed sooner than later.
Gazette readers have seen the reports on Smarter Balanced scores. It's time for parents to see their student's NWEA results and their class grades through Power School. Don't wait till a problem comes up; meet your students' teachers and be the vital member of the education team that all parents should be.
Parents are their children's first teachers; all their other teachers depend on parental support to do their very best work with your children.