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KPS students outperformed the state in yearly standardized tests

Daily Inter Lake | October 7, 2022 12:00 AM

Kalispell Public Schools third- through eighth-graders surpassed the state as a whole in the percentage of students proficient in English language arts and math for the 2021-22 school year, according to Smarter Balanced Assessment results released by the Montana Office of Public Instruction.

However, the school district experienced decreases in proficiency compared to students who took the state standardized test in the 2020-21 school year.

Students take the standardized test once a year as required through the Every Student Succeeds Act for federal reporting and accountability purposes. Students also are tested in science, but those results haven’t been released. The Smarter Balanced test is an end-of-year test meant to evaluate student learning in comparison to the Common Core Standards. It is an adaptive test taken on the computer, which means it adjusts the level of difficulty based on student answers.

At the state level, of Montana students tested in the 2021-2022 school year, 46% were considered “proficient” or “advanced” in English language arts and 37% in math, remaining flat compared to 2020-21 results.

When looking at KPS’ third- through eighth-graders combined, students performed better in English language arts than math. Of the 2,044 students tested in English language arts, 56% demonstrated proficiency. Of the 2,040 students tested in math, 44% were considered “proficient” or “advanced.” Proficiency decreased compared to 2020-21 test takers. In that school year, 59% were considered “proficient” or “advanced” in English language arts and 48% in math.

The U.S. Department of Education did not issue any testing waivers during the 2021-22 school year as in the previous two school years.

“I am proud of the resiliency our Montana students have shown through the school closures and uncertainties of Covid,” Office of Public Instruction Superintendent Elsie Arntzen said in a press release. “We have work to do to increase math skills throughout our state. I am focusing on opening our state math standards that haven’t been revised in over 10 years. I am also creating math innovation zones that will increase our teacher’s confidence in teaching math so that our Montana students can achieve educational excellence.”

KPS ASSISTANT Superintendent Matt Jensen, building principals Jen Stein of Edgerton Elementary and Brent Benkelman of Hedges Elementary, and district Instructional Coach Christy Bortz agreed state and federal accountability is important during an interview with the Daily Inter Lake at the district central office Tuesday.

However, the state standardized testing process as it is, is not helpful in aiding instructional decisions at the classroom level, they said. Smarter Balanced test is an end-of-year assessment given once a year to evaluate learning compared to the Common Core Standards. Standardized tests are often referred to as “snapshot testing” as opposed to showing achievement growth over time. Results are typically released the following school year, often in the fall, and by that time results serve as an “autopsy” of what’s going on, Jensen said.

Stein said she views the state scores as an opportunity to get an overview of how schools are faring as a system.

“For me, it’s more about our districts, our school system. Do we have a gap there? More so than an individual score,” Stein said.

Stein added that the district may look for patterns across the district in informing instructional changes or additions versus “changing the trajectory for a specific child.”

Benkelman said the Smarter Balanced Assessment represents just one data point among a plentitude used to improve instruction and learning.

At the classroom level, student achievement in reading, writing and math, is monitored by a program called Aimsweb, Jensen said. Aimsweb is a K-8 standards-aligned assessment tool created by the company Pearson. Three times a year students take the brief tests and the progress may identify a student as needing interventions or help teachers determine if interventions already in place are working, according to Jensen.

Teachers also evaluate students through tests on content taught in the classroom. These methods are where teachers can track student progress and make decisions such as whether a student needs additional help or intervention or whether prior interventions are working, according to the administrators.

The Smarter Balanced Assessment is significantly lengthier and is broken up over days since it requires hours of time to complete.

THE OFFICE of Public Instruction will be piloting a new state assessment beginning in November and KPS is participating in the effort. About 44 schools with more than 5,000 students will be participating in the Montana Alternative Student Testing (MAST) pilot program, including other local schools — Bigfork, Cayuse Prairie, Evergreen, Fair-Mont-Egan, Kila and Whitefish.

Jensen anticipates the pilot assessment program will be a growth model, which he supports.

“Why I think the state is exploring options is because its [current testing model] is not giving them an accurate picture of what’s happening in schools either,” Jensen said.

According to a press release from the Office of Public Instruction, the test will better align with classroom instruction. It is being developed in partnership with a Texas-based nonprofit called New Meridian.

Mirroring Aimsweb, the tests will be given multiple times a year and are anticipated to provide real-time data useful to teachers and aggregated data for administrators and state officials. They will also be briefer in duration to let teachers focus more on classroom instruction than on preparing for the state test.

“The idea of the New Meridian assessment is more aligned with what we’re trying to achieve through our Aimsweb testing than the one-and-done testing. The New Meridian assessment is the idea we would test multiple times a year and we would measure the growth of those kids and we would use that as the standard … showing proficiency and academic growth,” Jensen said.

Jensen spoke as to why making year-to-year comparisons with Smarter Balanced Assessment results might be helpful in generalizing data for the public, but it isn’t well-suited for educators and administrators.

“My example was if you go to a parent and say we’re going to measure the success of your oldest kid based on how well you’re youngest kid did on this test, the parent’s going to look at you like you’re crazy. That doesn’t make any sense, but it’s a convenient way to couple data and so when you get it from the state they like to show last year’s scores compared to this year’s scores,” Jensen said.

Outside of the testing challenges the pandemic posed, student mobility further complicates year-to-year comparisons, according to Jensen.

“If we were going to generalize data, we’d probably generalize by cohort,” Jensen said or following the achievement progress of a specific group of students as they move through grade levels.

Even if the state tracked scores by student cohorts, it would also be affected by high student mobility, which is due to an influx of families moving into the district combined with the district shifting students from neighborhood schools to prevent overcrowding at any one building.

The bottom line, the administrators agreed upon, is that the district seeks to continually improve in helping and supporting students in reaching their potential.

“We’re going to keep high standards and we’re going to make sure that students are making progress and we’re making more proficient students all the time,” Jensen said.

“No matter what,” Stein added.

“I think where we’re proud of our teachers is seeing how tenacious they are about meeting every kid where they are, and by the end of the year, seeing growth whether they’re a gifted kid off the charts or if it means they’re a special needs kid and they’ve made a lot of growth and

some of that growth is behavioral,” Stein said.

Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 758-4431 or by email at

This article was updated Oct. 8 to reflect that Brent Benkelman is principal at Hedges Elementary.