Montana looks to expand alternative school testing model following pilot program

Radley Elementary School
Montana Office of Public Instruction
Posted at 6:34 PM, May 16, 2023

HELENA — The state of Montana is trying out a new model for student testing – based on more assessments throughout the year instead of a single large test at the end of the year. Now, Montana’s state superintendent of public instruction hopes to significantly expand the pilot program.

“The data shouted that we needed to have a better model for teachers to recognize student growth, student learning,” said Superintendent Elsie Arntzen. “So we are excited about where we are at this point.”

At the start of this school year, the Office of Public Instruction began the pilot for the Montana Alternative Student Testing, or MAST, program. The program began with fifth and seventh graders. Arntzen said about 5,400 students, 130 teachers and more than 30 school districts have taken part so far.

In the MAST program, students do shorter assessments, called “testlets,” four times throughout the school year.

One of the districts that joined the pilot program was East Helena Public Schools. At Radley Elementary School, 156 students in all of the school’s fifth grade classes took the testlets. The fourth round of assessments wrapped up just a week ago.

“I think it definitely has a lot of potential,” said Radley Principal Gus Somerfeld.

Radley did the testing entirely on computers. Classes spent two 45-minute periods a day on testlets – one on math and one on reading – for one week.

Somerfeld said teachers saw positives from the new model, especially in comparison to the current year-end Smarter Balanced assessment.

“That is an overall summative assessment – it's really long, and like I said before, it sometimes tested and assessed our students on their stamina just as much as on their content knowledge,” he said. “So I know that the overall feeling from the teachers was that it was nice that it was broken up and chunked into four different assessments throughout the school year.”

He said Radley teachers also liked getting quick feedback, though he said it would take them time to get used to the new online portal for accessing the data.

One challenge was fitting the assessments into the school schedule. This year, participating classes still had to do the Smarter Balanced tests in addition to the MAST assessments.

“It was another thing added to their school day whenever those tests were taken,” said Arntzen. “So that had to be a balancing act that teachers had to do.”

Somerfeld said, at Radley, teachers didn’t have too much trouble scheduling the first two rounds of testlets, but it was more challenging after that.

“Later in the school year, particularly after Christmas break, as well as now, our focus is more directed towards our district assessments as well as Smarter Balanced, so it was significantly harder to fit that in.”

Arntzen’s office has sent a waiver request to the U.S. Department of Education, asking that students be exempted from Smarter Balanced if they participate in MAST. They expect to receive a response by the end of this week.

“We are saying that the testlets are an equivalent of the summative,” Arntzen said. “That's why we're seeking more districts and more students, so that we can have a better show of who we do test.”

In the coming school year, Arntzen wants to expand the pilot program to cover third through eighth grades. She said her office will continue to listen to feedback from the educators who’ve been part of the program so far.

“I'm proud of Montana, I'm proud of our Montana teachers for saying yes, and I'm proud of the good work that we've done,” she said.