Scores remained flat on statewide standardized tests taken in the spring, with about half of all public school students graded as at least proficient in English language arts and about 40 percent as proficient in math, according to results released Tuesday.

“These test scores, in my mind, are a shout of urgency that Montana must do better,” State Superintendent Elsie Arntzen said. “It was frustrating. Coming from the classroom — knowing how much emphasis that is placed on these tests, understanding the tests are taking away from curriculum or just the amount of time students take on this test — I was hoping for more of an increase.”

It is the third year Montana has used the computerized Smarter Balanced assessment to measure how well students are learning curricula set by state and federal standards. Children in third through eighth grades take the test. Since 2016, high school juniors have instead taken the ACT, which also can be used to apply to college.

These scores will serve as local baselines in the state’s plan for complying with new requirements outlined in the federal Every Student Succeeds Act. Montana’s current draft sets ambitious goals for improving scores, particularly those of Native Americans and students with special education needs — drawing criticism from many local district leaders who say the proposed gains are arbitrary or unrealistic.

In 2017, 50.3 percent of students scored proficient or advanced on the English test, up slightly from 50.1 percent last year and 45 percent in 2015. On the math test, 40.2 percent scored at least proficient in 2017, compared to 40.8 percent in 2016 and 38 percent in 2015.

Students at Missoula County Public Schools scored higher than statewide averages.

In English, 61 percent were proficient or higher. About one quarter of all students scored as advanced compared to 18 percent statewide. In math, 52 percent were proficient or higher. Again, about one quarter of all students earned advanced scores, more than the statewide average of 16 percent.

Missoula Superintendent Mark Thane celebrated the district’s higher-than-average scores.

“That said, I’m not satisfied with our results,” he said, noting the ongoing work among teachers in professional learning groups to analyze the detailed data and adapt teaching strategies accordingly.

District Director of Teaching and Learning Elise Guest agreed that the scores will help schools identify needed areas of improvement, but said it is “dangerous to look at one test score and make conclusions from it.” She noted it’s more important to look at scores over time to see if they’re improving, which they have in Missoula.

The district also launched new, short tests that will be administered in September, January and May, which will provide teachers with more immediate feedback they can use to tailor lessons throughout the year.

The first year of the statewide Smarter Balanced test in 2015, the state only recorded 70 percent of scores because of technical glitches. This year and last, more than 98 percent of scores were counted.

Scores varied significantly among some groups of students and between districts.

The Office of Public Instruction did not immediately make the scores available by various factors, such as race, gender or whether students were noted as being at economic disadvantage. However, in a press release Tuesday, Arntzen highlighted the persistent achievement gap between American Indian students and white peers statewide. Just 21 percent scored proficient or better in English language arts and 15 percent tested at that level in math, according to the release.

Arntzen said Tuesday that the state’s plan to comply with new federal education standards will be aggressive in its goals to close gaps among those students and others who have special needs. In the statement, she also said the plan would focus on science, technology, engineering, math and career technical education beginning in middle school.

 

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