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Montana OPI discusses plans for next steps in new testing program

Montana Office of Public Instruction
Posted at 6:32 PM, Sep 15, 2023

HELENA — Earlier this week, the Montana Office of Public Instruction released the latest batch of statewide student testing results. Next year, the test results for many school districts won’t be calculated the same way as they have been, as more are joining a pilot program for a new testing model.

“This test is a whole different mindset in recognizing where we are,” said Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen.

This school year will be the second year for the Montana Alternative Student Testing, or MAST, pilot program, in which students take multiple small assessments, called “testlets,” throughout the year. Leaders hope the new model will provide quicker feedback and a clearer picture of how students are learning during the year.

More than 5,000 students – fifth and seventh graders from 33 school districts – participated last school year. However, they still had to take the statewide Smarter Balanced assessment at the end of the year.

That’s not going to be the case for those taking part in MAST this year. Last month, the U.S. Department of Education announced it was granting OPI’s request for a waiver, exempting participating districts from the end-of-year assessment and allowing them to focus on the testlets.

In a letter, an Education Department official said, because the new model would provide more frequent feedback, and because Montana plans to fully transition to the new model next year, “we have determined that this waiver will advance student academic achievement, especially in the context of the urgent work of academic recovery post-pandemic.”

This year, 54 school districts have decided to take part in MAST, and the pilot program will be expanded to all students from third grade to eighth grade in those districts. That will be more than 20,000 students – roughly a third of Montana’s public school students in that age range. Participating districts range from large urban schools in Billings, Great Falls and Kalispell to rural schools in places like Circle, Geyser and Rapelje. Several schools in tribal areas and on Hutterite colonies are also taking part.

“We've got wonderful demographics of who these students are, in order to be able to deliver a unique model of recognizing success of teaching and learning,” said Arntzen.

Arntzen says they’re moving forward with plans to have all districts in the pilot program next school year. After that, the data will be passed on to the federal government for review.

“The more that we can be transparent, the more that we can share with our federal partners what is happening with assessments, the better they will understand and maybe be more responsive to other states who’re being innovative,” Arntzen said.

The results from the testlets are available quickly at the classroom level, and the goal is to be able to combine them to show student progress at the school and district level. Arntzen said they are working on ways to compare those assessment results “apples to apples” with the ones that come from the Smarter Balanced tests.

“We are going to have to make sure that there's some equivalency this coming year with what does it mean to have a summative score,” she said. “Two-thirds of our state is still going to take summative, but then I've got one-third that isn't, so equating that is going to be important to do to really recognize success of our new model.”

The first testlet window for districts participating this year will begin Oct. 23.