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Experimental student testing model slated for statewide rollout

by ALEX SAKARIASSEN Montana Free Press
| June 8, 2024 12:00 AM

This spring marked a departure from the usual end-of-year testing regime at Missoula’s Hellgate Elementary School District. Gone were the back-to-back weeks of summative assessments students and teachers had grown accustomed to. Instead, the nine months leading up to this week’s final hours of instruction had been sprinkled with scaled-down tests designed to incrementally gauge students’ competence in math and reading.

The change wasn’t without its hiccups, Hellgate Superintendent Molly Blakely said, but overall, teachers in the district reported positively about their ability to manage student testing time and identify academic strengths and weaknesses in a more timely manner.

“Teachers really appreciated that the testlets were shorter, and so it felt more manageable time-wise,” Blakely told Montana Free Press. “And just being able to get the results and the data back in a timely fashion allows you to look at both weaknesses or gaps that students may have, as well as strengths. Because you’re getting that feedback in late October possibly, depending on when the testlet was given, then you’re able to adjust your instructional practices.”

All Montana public school students in grades 3 through 8 will soon follow the example set by Hellgate and roughly five dozen other districts across the state. After two years of piloting a new approach in those districts, the Office of Public Instruction is now preparing for a statewide rollout of the model this fall. According to OPI Chief Operating Officer Julie Murgel, Montana’s long-standing practice of administering a single test each spring will now give way to 12 smaller assessments, or testlets, conducted at various points throughout the school year.

“A testlet is almost more like a quiz, almost like a chapter assessment, if you will,” Murgel said. “What it’s doing is it’s assessing a bundle of [instructional] standards in the time of when they’re taught, at that moment.”

Murgel added that the testlets, which were crafted to align with state subject-area standards, must be administered within certain windows, but will ideally offer enough flexibility for individual districts and teachers to sync them with their local lesson plans.

State and local education officials have been gearing up for the switch for months, with OPI staff offering regular updates to the Montana Board of Public Education and fielding questions about continued modifications. The U.S. Department of Education requires that all public school students in grades 3 through 8 be tested in reading and math at the end of each school year, but granted Montana a one-year waiver last fall to accommodate OPI’s pilot project on the condition that the state implement its statewide field test in 2024-25 and adjust student achievement standards accordingly.

According to Roger Dereszynski, assessment director for the Billings Public Schools, the federal waiver helped resolve an issue faced by participating districts like his: double testing. Prior to the waiver, Dereszynski said, districts in the pilot’s first year were still required to administer end-of-year summative tests in order to comply with regulatory mandates. Billings participated in both years, a decision Dereszynski said was motivated by a desire to become familiar with a new testing model the state appeared likely to adopt in the future.

Starting in spring 2022, OPI also spearheaded a state task force to review the pilot’s findings in collaboration with the National Center for the Improvement of Educational Assessment. In a virtual interview alongside Murgel, state Superintendent Elsie Arntzen said the end goal of the yearslong work is to craft an approach to testing that helps students recognize their academic growth and gives teachers timelier access to results that can inform classroom instruction.

“The very, very end of this is to have the student recognize what they learned and how they learned it, because that assessment is the how, right?” Arntzen said. “But then also for the student, if the student will own their own learning, then they will attend school more, they will be attentive to school because they’ll recognize growth themselves. It’s not the adult telling them, it’s the student owning their learning with the help of that mentor, that teacher."

Student assessment has been the subject of much debate in Montana and nationally over the years. Critics of the traditional end-of-year testing model have argued that test results register too late in the year for teachers to make much practical instructional use of them. Blakely said the timing also presented challenges, with sick days or warm spring weather affecting student participation or focus during the school year’s only testing window. She added that the exam itself is “long, laborious, tedious,” requiring students to spend hours reviewing nine months of lessons on reading and math and bringing normal classroom activity to a lengthy halt.

“When you’re talking about doing assessments with students as young as third grade, it’s just not, in my opinion, developmentally appropriate to make an 8-year-old student sit and take a test for four straight days for math and English language arts, which was our previous testing model,” Blakely said. “With this, it just seems much more developmentally appropriate.”

Montana’s pilot program reflects the national conversation around reforming education’s approach to student assessment, a conversation partly rooted in the declining test scores reported across the country since the COVID-19 pandemic. But the change OPI is pushing is not without critics. 

Most recently, several district officials voiced concerns to the Montana Board of Public Education last month about test length, student fatigue and whether teachers are truly receiving testlet results in a timely enough fashion. Laurie Barron, superintendent of the Evergreen School District in Kalispell, told board members that while her staff is “wholly committed” to the pilot, the initiative has felt “extremely rushed” since its inception in 2022. She cautioned against Montana using any pilot data for school accreditation or federal accountability reporting, a warning she added would include next year’s statewide rollout, since that is still categorized as a pilot year.

“We are also very concerned about the length of time it is taking for the testlets,” Barron said. “Originally we were told they would be 15 to 20 minutes in length per testlet. We’re seeing an average of 30 to 50 minutes per testlet.”

Barron and others also expressed a desire for fewer testing windows throughout the year to reduce anxiety among students and teachers. However, they acknowledged that some of their concerns — namely the amount of time spent taking testlets and the roughly 10-day turnaround on results — will likely be ironed out as familiarity with the model grows and OPI works with its vendor, nonprofit assessment company New Meridian, to further improve the system.

Blakely and Dereszynski acknowledged experiencing similar growing pains during the pilot so far, and echoed their belief that ongoing refinement will likely address those issues. In the end, Dereszynski said, he can envision a future where the state-delivered testlets could serve as a replacement for the periodic assessments his district and others already deliver on their own. According to OPI officials, blending those local needs and practices with state standards and federal requirements is a primary driver for revisiting Montana’s whole approach to testing.

“We’ve all said for quite a while that we really need to improve this assessment system,” Murgel said. “Here’s an opportunity.”

Murgel and Arntzen confirmed that the statewide change will not affect testing at the high school level or administration of the ACT, a widely used college readiness exam that also serves as Montana’s federally mandated high school summative assessment. Concerns about income- and race-based score gaps coupled with the challenge of delivering such exams during the COVID-19 pandemic has led many American colleges and universities including the University of Montana and Montana State University to abandon requiring test scores as a condition of student admission. However, some prestigious institutions like Yale, Dartmouth and MIT have begun to reinstate the requirement in recent years, making the availability of standardized tests a prerequisite for high schoolers looking to apply to those campuses.

Though the ACT will remain in use in Montana for at least the next year, Murgel said the state’s student assessment debate has already begun to turn toward the high school level — a direction she partly attributed to a recent administrative change that shifted the cost of administering the ACT from the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education to OPI.

“We’re not ready quite yet,” Murgel said, “but we’ve got to start thinking about what do we really want to see happening at that high school level and what does that mean for us?”

Alex Sakariassen is a reporter for the Montana Free Press, a Helena-based nonprofit newsroom, and can be reached at asakariassen@montanafreepress.org.