Standardized tests are loved and hated in American schools for their ability to put a number on how well students are learning and teachers are teaching. The tests can help point a finger at poor-performing schools, but they require hours of class time and, some argue, distort the aim of education. Within this debate Montana now finds itself in a kind of purgatory, having gone "all in" on next-generation exams but still left without any scores to show for it.
The problem stems from a botched rollout of the new Smarter Balanced, or SBAC, exams last spring. The computerized tests for language arts and math were supposed to be Buzz Lightyear to the state's old paper-and-pencil version. But, as MEA-MFT President Eric Feaver says, "The technology failed."
Bugs in the online system delayed the state testing period twice, then the server crashed when students from Las Vegas also tried to sign on. Around 18 percent of Montana students didn't take the exams at all after state Superintendent Denise Juneau told districts they could cancel it.
Then, as other states began publishing scores over the summer, Juneau had to deliver more bad news to schools: Montana's scores are delayed indefinitely, and they might not be valid.
Two months into the following school year the results still aren't available, in part because Montana is participating in a study that will analyze if technology disruptions affected the integrity of some exams. If that's the case, SBAC's first year may have been a wash.
"If this exam or any exam fails to provide teachers with useful information about how their kids are learning and they're teaching, it's a failed exam," Feaver says.
The trouble is particularly frustrating for Montana school leaders because the state took the unusual step in 2014 of scrapping its old exam a year early so more than 70,000 students could take a pilot version of the new test. The move, intended to ensure a smooth rollout last spring, backfired. To date, Montana students have spent as many as 16 hours each on SBAC exams without receiving any scores.
Diana Tackett, a fourth-grade teacher at Missoula's Hawthorne Elementary, says she had been planning to use the scores to look for holes in her Common Core-aligned curriculum but has other tools to gauge how well each student is doing.
"For me, it's just one piece of the puzzle," she says.
Juneau says SBAC scores are expected sometime next month but she has received no formal assurance they will come by the end of the calendar year. The Office of Public Instruction is withholding payment on the $1.33 million annual testing contract until scores arrive.
But Montana isn't ready to completely abandon the tests, and Juneau is hopeful testing can run smoothly next spring. She also points out that her office doesn't have many other options. The federal No Child Left Behind Act requires states to give an annual exam to students in seven grades, and Montana doesn't allocate enough funds to afford a more expensive version of the new computerized tests.
"My sincere hope is that Congress approves an updated educational policy that returns control of educational accountability to the states," Juneau says.