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Montana education 'report card' shows test scores slip after COVID-19 impact

The Montana Office of Public Instruction has released its annual “report card”
Posted at 8:58 AM, Apr 06, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-06 10:58:16-04

HELENA — The Montana Office of Public Instruction (OPI) has released its annual “report card” — highlighting student assessment data at the state, district and school levels — as required by the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.

It’s the first time they’ve shared student testing results taken after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The data, from the 2020-21 school year, shows 46% of students across Montana scored “proficient” or “advanced” in reading. 34% were at least proficient in math, and 25% were at least proficient in science.

Those numbers are lower than in the 2018-19 school year, when 50% were proficient or better in reading, 41% in math and 61% in science.

The federal government waived testing requirements in 2019-20 because of COVID-19, but that waiver didn’t continue.

The report card data is based on the Smarter Balanced Assessment for students between third and eighth grades and on the ACT for high school juniors.

In a statement, Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen said the pandemic clearly had an impact on the scores.

ESSA State Numbers

“A one-size federally mandated test does not reflect student learning success as every student, every teacher, and every Montana community was affected by COVID-19 and these test scores reflect it,” she said. “We have work to do!”

Helena Public Schools leaders echoed that.

Kaitlyn Hess, the district’s data and assessment coordinator, said the 2020-21 school year — when students were split between online and in-person classes in a “hybrid” learning plan — was hardly a normal educational environment for their students.

She said she wasn’t surprised to see that reflected in the report card.

“We put structures in place — an instructional framework that spoke to the hybrid learning environment for all grades — so that teachers could try to cover as many essential standards as possible and get through as much curriculum as possible, but we knew with the abnormality in the schedule that we weren’t going to be able to cover as much ground as we traditionally do,” said Hess.

Helena’s assessment data shows similar or slightly higher proficiency numbers compared to the state as a whole.

In the 2020-21 school year, the school report card shows 51% of Helena elementary students were proficient or higher in reading, and 34% in math.

That’s compared to 56% proficiency in reading and 48% in math in the 2018-19 school year.

At the elementary level, only fifth and eighth-grade students take a science assessment.

Hess said the state didn’t publicly release those results because 2020-21 was a pilot year for a new testing program.

For high school students at Helena schools, 54% were at least proficient in reading and 34% were in math, compared to 57% and 40%, respectively, two years earlier. A total of 35% were proficient or better in science, down from 60% in 2018-19.

Hess said they saw clear differences in how students were affected in each subject.

“With reading, students can get a lot of hits of reading outside of school – whether it’s reading on their own time, whether it’s parents reading to them – and that reading comprehension, although it might be slower to increase, they can still get practice with it,” she said. “Math requires some more explicit teaching, and students didn’t get as much of that direct instruction last year as they would have in previous years.”

She said it made sense science scores were particularly affected.

“Our science scores in high school are a reflection of students not being able to do as many labs,” she said. “That hands-on experience is crucial to understanding the science concepts, they can’t do those at home, you couldn’t sit next to your lab partners and work with people.”

Hess said, overall, they’re pleased with how their students have done under difficult circumstances.

“There’s room for improvement without a doubt, but we’ve implemented systems and structures this year that have us trying to fill those gaps and get students caught up at a quicker rate,” she said.

The district does its own assessments several times a year, and Hess said those results have them optimistic that they’re getting back on their earlier track.

“Our winter benchmark scores placed us on par to where we were pre-pandemic, if not even above the national norms,” she said. “Those results are incredibly promising to us.”

You can find links to state, district and county data on the Office of Public Instruction’s website.

Schools are set to conduct their statewide assessments for this year in April and May, and the results for those assessments will be published around this time next year.