Keila Szpaller

(Daily Montanan) Fewer than half of Montana students are reading at or above grade level, at 46.1 percent, and just 36.5 percent are proficient in math, according to data released this month from the Montana Office of Public Instruction.

The low scores reflect national trends following the Covid-19 pandemic and ensuing classroom shutdowns or periods where schools operated remotely off and on. The Montana scores are from third- through eighth-graders and 11th graders.

“I am proud of the resiliency our Montana students have shown through the school closures and uncertainties of COVID,” said Superintendent Elsie Arntzen in a statement from OPI. “We have work to do to increase math skills throughout our state.”

In 2022, the National Center for Education Statistics conducted a “special administration” of reading and math assessments for students age 9 to examine achievement during the pandemic.

“Average scores for age 9 students in 2022 declined five points in reading and seven points in mathematics compared to 2020,” said the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the Nation’s Report Card, on its website.

“This is the largest average score decline in reading since 1990, and the first ever score decline in mathematics.”

Lance Melton, head of the Montana School Boards Association, said the dip in scores in the state was predictable since it followed a time schools were roiled with the coronavirus and closures. He also said policymakers and school leaders have been responsive, including OPI putting millions of federal dollars toward getting students back on track.

“Once we get some of these national assessments and international comparisons that are conducted post pandemic, I believe that they will show that whatever disruption in learning that happened in Montana has generally happened to an even more significant degree elsewhere,” Melton said in an email following a phone conversation. “Montana generally scores above average on the NAEP test compared to the national average.

“That does not mean that children were unaffected in Montana, of course, but our public schools generally do a better job than many other states when it comes to educating children.”

OPI spokesperson Brian O’Leary said the superintendent hopes a new way of testing will help students improve. The MAST program, or Montana Alternative Student Testing pilot program, assesses progress over the course of a school year.

“The superintendent is hopeful that the new MAST assessment program will help raise our student scores with teacher-student awareness and increased ownership of testing in the growth through year model pilot,” O’Leary said in an email.

“The Superintendent’s goal is to emphasize the basics of math and reading as she begins the work on revitalizing our math content standards, which are more than a decade old.”

In the news release about the scores, OPI said the federal government requires 95 percent participation for the assessment. In the 2021-2022 school year, 98.2 percent of third- through eighth-grade students participated in the reading test, and 96.7 percent of them participated in the math test, OPI said.

However, O’Leary also said federally mandated testing is not a true reflection of student learning: “The superintendent is thankful that the federal government accepted Montana’s ask to begin the MAST program.”

O’Leary said data show a clear drop in proficiency after the pandemic compared to before the pandemic. He said the shift to online classes and other uncertainties around Covid-19 may have led to learning loss for students.

“Math scores have always been flat with a downward trend,” O’Leary said. “This can be seen not only in Montana’s scores but nationally through the NAEP scores as well.”

He provided reading scores, which are a combination of proficient and advanced percentages:

  • 2015-16 – 50.1%
  • 2016-17 – 50.3%
  • 2017-18 – 50.5%
  • 2018-19 – 50.1%
  • 2019-20 – NA
  • 2020-21 – 46.4%
  • 2021-22 – 46.1%

Math scores are the following:

  • 2015-16 – 41.77%
  • 2016-17 – 41.2%
  • 2017-18 – 41.59%
  • 2018-19 – 41.93%
  • 2019-20 – NA
  • 2020-21 – 35.57%
  • 2021-22 – 36.54%

“There are clearly more factors that have led to math and reading scores dropping,” O’Leary said. “Teacher confidence in teaching math and reading has also suffered. The superintendent is working to grow Montana’s professional development for teachers in math and reading so that they can teach more confidently.”

At an education panel earlier in the week, Melton said starting teacher pay in Montana is 48th in the nation.

Melton, who also said he didn’t like end-of-year assessments for testing students (like an autopsy rather than diagnosis, he said), noted schools are open again, and students are learning.

“I do think a good dose of normalcy could be just what the doctor ordered, and we’re getting there,” he said.

At the same time, Melton said he’s worried in particular about early childhood because the struggles those children have will perpetuate through their lives. Plus, students are facing increasingly complex lives, including stressed families and homelessness.

He said some analysts believe the effects of the pandemic will resonate far into the future, but he’s more optimistic and believes children will catch up. He said the right exams will help.

“We’re a little bit bumped and bruised but working hard to make good on that promise” of public education, Melton said.