Montana Office of Public Instruction looks to waive all school testing during COVID-19 closures
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Montana Office of Public Instruction looks to waive all school testing during COVID-19 closures

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Montana education officials have asked the feds to waive testing requirements for the state in yet another signal that schools won’t be returning to normal anytime soon.

Students in grades 3-8 usually take Smarter Balanced tests for federal accountability purposes, and high school juniors take the ACT, a college entrance exam that doubles as fulfilling federal requirements.

Federal officials announced last week they would consider targeted testing waivers, but not statewide waivers. That was before a wave of closures shuttered most public schools in the U.S., and before it became apparent that closure might be measured in months, not days or weeks.

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock closed public schools from March 14 to March 27. While there has been no announced extension of that closure, Bullock’s announcement references planning for future closures, and local district leaders are preparing for the long haul. States like Wisconsin and Kansas have made closure indefinite or for the rest of the school year.

Test scores factor heavily in how the state of Montana rates schools under the Every Student Succeeds Act. Schools aren’t hit with penalties like reduced funding for low scores; rather, they are tabbed for further resources from the state to try to improve education.

The ACT is unique in that by doubling as a college entrance exam, it also affects individual student goals. Most colleges and universities require a certain score for admission; if the ACT and the similar SAT exam were canceled wholesale this spring, it could have a major effect of high schoolers with college ambitions and on higher education admissions.

The organizations that operate the ACT and SAT have both delayed testing windows; the earliest available new date for the ACT, April 24, is well past Montana’s original March 24 test date and even its April 21 emergency date.

Montana Office of Public Instruction spokesman Dylan Klapmeier said that the agency is in talks with the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education about how best to advise students and to explore the option of more individualized testing.

OPI acted on several fronts Wednesday. The group asked the Board of Public Education to suspend testing in Montana.

“Testing is a large component of school accountability under the Every Student Succeeds Act, but during this difficult time, it is not the most important element of student success,” Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen wrote.

In that letter, OPI said it will request the federal waiver.

The group also asked Bullock to suspend some school laws; notably, it asked that schools not be required to make up time missed for coronavirus closures. While Billings school officials have been confident they won’t have to make up time, there hasn’t been certainty at the state level.

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The small community in northern Montana has a population of about 4,800 but accounts for three-fifths of the state's five total deaths from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus

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