Last year, more than 400 Missoula high school students scored higher than their counterparts nationwide on standardized tests of reading, writing, math and science.
After as many as 870 Missoula 11th-graders take the ACT Tuesday afternoon, Missoula County Public Schools administrators will know if that’s the case across a much broader sample of students.
The Montana Office of Public Instruction started its GEAR Up grant program last year through the Commissioner of Higher Education office, and Sentinel High School juniors took the national college admissions test free as part of the pilot program.
This year, all juniors throughout the state can take the test without paying the $50.50 fee, an offer administrators say will give districts a clearer understanding of students’ strengths and weaknesses.
“In 2011-2012, we had 416 students that actually took the ACT,” said MCPS public affairs director Lesli Brassfield. “We know that in those subject areas, 12 percent scored higher than the national benchmarks.”
Missoula’s students had a composite score – an average of math, reading, writing and science – of 23.1. The state average was 22 last year, and the national average was 21.1.
With more students taking the test this year, including students who may be underperforming or who are not interested in going to college, the MCPS district may get a more accurate picture of how all its students perform against the national standard.
“It’s hard to say how that will play out,” Brassfield said. “It’s really about supporting these kids in the classroom and making sure they’ll be prepared to graduate.”
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau said 60 percent of the state’s graduating seniors last year took the ACT before finishing school. She expects to see a dip in scores statewide this year.
But that more complete data will help schools, and will help students understand what they’re good at and where they need to invest extra time and attention.
“(Schools) get a little deeper data and they can pick that apart if they want to,” Juneau said. “But I think the primary purpose for this opportunity is at the individual level – for those students who think they might be going to college or those who aren’t.”
The state has its own benchmarks it wants students to achieve throughout their learning careers, and it has a plethora of tests throughout K-12 to check whether students are meeting those standards.
The money paying for Tuesday’s ACT exams at Montana high schools is a seven-year grant Juneau said is in the state’s best interest to finance. But when she took a funding request to the Montana Legislature in 2011, lawmakers turned her proposal down.
She said her office may use the data throughout the grant’s life to put together an even stronger proposal.
If Missoula has a high turnout, the tab would be as high as $43,935, plus the cost for students to send their scores to as many as four colleges.
The results students and schools get after this year’s testing period ends will help determine whether students are in need of remedial courses before going to college, Juneau said.
“Students will be able to see for themselves at an individual level whether they’re prepared, whether they need another math class during their senior year, or if they’re ready to step up and take a dual-credit course,” Juneau said.
The effort, Brassfield said, should help promote higher student performance at high school and college levels.
“I think they certainly look at these scores and I think that now that we know all juniors are taking the test, the scores will certainly have more meaning,” Brassfield said. “If the kids aren’t doing well on what they should be learning in the classroom, that information is even more influential.”
Taylor Anderson is a student in the University of Montana School of Journalism and an intern at the Missoulian.