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The achievement gap for Montana students is widening as an increasing number of students fails to meet benchmarks for math proficiency in eighth grade.

According to a nationwide report released this week on child well-being, 63% of eighth-graders in Montana were not proficient in math in 2017 — a 12.5% jump from 2009 when 56% of the state’s eighth-graders fell below proficiency benchmarks.

Although Montana did slightly better than the national average of 67% of students who didn’t meet eighth-grade math proficiency in 2017, Montana Kids Count director Thale Dillon called the nationwide math proficiency rate “appalling.”

The report, known as the 2019 Kids Count Data Book from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, combines the most recent comparable data from across the nation to show how individual states rank. Overall, Montana ranked 20th for education.

According to the most recent data in the Montana Office of Public Instruction’s 2017-2018 state report card, about 59% of all students statewide are not proficient in math.

“Math scores in Montana at all grade levels are not great and have been pretty consistent,” OPI spokesman Dylan Klapmeier said.

The achievement gap is even greater for Native American students — 86% of whom are not proficient in math, according to the state report card.

“We have a lot of work to do on our reservation schools and with our American Indian students,” Klapmeier said.

The Kids Count report also compared reading proficiency nationwide, and found that 62% of Montana’s fourth-graders were not proficient in reading in 2017, ranking slightly better than the nationwide average of 65%.

Kids Count director Dillon said it’s important to measure fourth-grade reading proficiency because it serves as a predictor of how well students do later in school.

“At that time, kids stop learning to read, and instead, they’re expected to use their reading skills to learn other things,” Dillon said.

Insufficient reading skills can hinder a student’s ability to understand lessons in their math textbook, causing them to fall further behind.

“Not only do they have to master the subject matter, they are falling behind because they can’t master the reading that is required to understand that subject matter,” Dillon said.

Klapmeier said OPI is working to address the math achievement gap through a number of initiatives, including professional development for teachers through an online learning hub and the implementation of federally mandated targeted support for state schools that struggle most.

Klapmeier said the state wants to emphasize the importance of math at the middle school level and intervene before students fall behind. However, he said that improving math proficiency overall is a challenge for the state.

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