Montana's Smarter Balanced school test scores showed a slight uptick this spring with a relatively smooth testing process, a far cry from the glitchy debacle of 2015.
On Wednesday, Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau announced that students’ scores on this year's Smarter Balanced assessment increased in its two testing areas, math and English/language arts.
Smarter Balanced corresponds to the Common Core standards, adopted by Montana in 2011. Both are said to be more rigorous and better prepare students for college and careers than previous standards.
But the first year of Smarter Balanced testing in Montana, in 2015, was a disaster.
"Last year was really an anomaly," Juneau said in an interview Wednesday. "It was a strange year. We adjusted as much as possible and provided flexibility when we needed to. Going forward and knowing we had a successful assessment experience this year, I think we're on a good path."
Testing in 2015 was plagued by technical glitches, server crashes and scoring problems that caused delays, cancellations and potentially compromised test results.
As a result, only 72 percent of Montana students' test scores were recorded as usable. That spring, Juneau allowed 142 schools to opt out of the test because of the technical issues. Opting out was not allowed this spring.
This year, nearly 98 percent of students in grades 3-8 took the test.
High school juniors are not part of the results this year because they took the ACT instead. In February, the Montana Board of Public Education gave the OK for high school juniors to take the ACT instead of Smarter Balanced to meet national testing standards. Montana began offering the ACT free to all juniors in 2014.
"We actually cut testing time for juniors," Juneau said. "The ACT is such a more meaningful test for 17-year-olds. It provides an opportunity for them to see their basic college readiness skills. We're moving toward the ACT as part of the statewide assessment system, and not doing Smarter Balanced assessment at 11th grade."
It mirrors Juneau's statement in a news release announcing the test scores: "This annual assessment is just one measure teachers and school leaders have to evaluate student progress, it is certainly not the final arbiter of success in Montana’s public schools.”
Juneau said the state worked with its testing vendors, American Institutes for Research (AIR) and Measured Progress, to "make it better" this year.
During Smarter Balanced field testing in 2014, Montana used AIR's proprietary platform to deliver the test. But in 2015, AIR and Measured Progress delivered the test on AIR's open-source platform and "it didn't work," Juneau said, in Montana, North Dakota and Nevada.
This year, Montana used the proprietary system to deliver the test. Juneau said the state will continue to use that system.
As predicted in Montana and other states new to Smarter Balanced, test scores took a dive in the first year of implementation – and they inched slightly higher this year.
Statewide this spring, 41 percent of students were proficient or advanced in math, up from 38 percent in 2015. And 50 percent of students tested proficient or advanced in English/language arts, up from 45 percent in 2015.
There are four achievement levels: novice, nearing proficiency, proficient and advanced.
"We adopted the new standards (Common Core), we worked with teachers across the state, compared the old standards to new and everyone agreed we should move forward with raising the bar," Juneau said. "I think that's the reflection in the scores you're seeing. It's challenging, and I think that's a good thing.
"Students are learning more than they ever have before. But because the new assessment measures those standards, difficulty has also increased. So over time, we're going to continue seeing upticks as people adjust to the new bar."
State officials say Smarter Balanced test scores cannot be compared to previous years, nor other standardized tests. Despite their issues, scores from Montana's first year of testing have been used as the baseline for future comparison.
"We have to," Juneau said. "Last year was the first time the new assessment based on the new standards was delivered, and 70 percent of students still took the test. When we look at statewide, that's what we have to compare to."
Test results were released in December last year, but this year's results were in teachers' hands sooner, before the school year ended, Juneau said.
"It's going to be a more meaningful assessment as time goes on, too," she said. "They were getting results of a class a whole year later, when the class had already moved on to the next level."
Missoula County Public Schools 2016 Smarter Balanced results
|School||Grade||Content Area||% Proficient/Advanced|
|Lewis and Clark||5||Math||58|
|Chief Charlo||5||English/language arts||54|
|Cold Springs||5||English/language arts||68|
|Lewis and Clark||5||English/language arts||64|
|Meadow Hill||8||English/language arts||53|
|C.S. Porter||8||English/language arts||52|
Missoula-area school district Smarter Balanced 2016 results
|District||Math % Proficient/Advanced||ELA % Proficient/Advanced|
In Missoula County Public Schools, 50 percent tested proficient or advanced in math, up from 46 percent in 2015. And 57 percent tested at those levels in English/language arts, up from 53 percent.
Falling in line with 2015 results, scores at MCPS' individual schools ran the gamut.
In math, fifth-graders scoring proficient or advanced ranged from a low of 28 percent at Franklin to a high of 68 percent at Cold Springs.
In English/language arts, fifth-graders scoring proficient or advanced swung from a low of 32 percent at Franklin to 68 percent at Cold Springs.
Franklin has the second-highest rate of students eligible for free and reduced-price lunch in the district, at 72.7 percent, according to the Office of Public Instruction. Lowell is highest, at 75.8 percent. Cold Springs has the lowest rate, at 21.9 percent.