Flathead County School Districts to Begin Pilot Testing Program

Six districts across the Valley will administer the first round of the Montana Alternative Student Testing Pilot Program to fifth- and seventh-grade students

By Denali Sagner
A student at their desk at Columbia Falls High School on Aug. 26, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Six Flathead County school districts next month will administer the first set of standardized tests to fifth and seventh graders as a part of the Montana Alternative Student Testing (MAST) Pilot program. The pilot program, which teachers say will more accurately measure and address gaps in students’ skill levels, allows educators to give students shorter, more frequent tests in math and reading, rather than a longer summative assessment at the end of the year. Flathead County has the highest MAST participation of any county in the state, with the Kalispell, Whitefish, Bigfork, Evergreen, Kila and Fair-Mont-Egan school districts planning to administer MAST tests.

Currently, Montana students in third through eighth grades are assessed on mathematics and reading through the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC), a summative exam that requires students to test for a total of 3.5 to 6 hours at the end of the year. Fifth and eighth graders are also required to sit for the one- to two-hour Montana Science Assessment, which brings cumulative state testing hours up to 4.5 to 6 hours for those grades.

Through MAST, rather than these year-end assessments, fifth- and seventh-grade students will sit for five “testlets,” three in math and two in reading, four times per year. The testlets take 10 minutes each and are administered digitally. The four testing windows for the 2022-23 school year are Nov. 7-22, Jan. 17-30 and two windows in the spring, one in March and one in April, the specific dates of which have not yet been announced.

Educators throughout the Flathead Valley said that they are looking forward to the new program and see it as a way to address students’ needs more immediately, rather than inundating them with hours of testing at the end of the school year, which makes it difficult to measure their progress as it occurs. Though teachers and administrators acknowledge there may be roadblocks in rolling out a brand new program, they hope that MAST’s alternative format will help efficiently address gaps in learning and catch students up after pandemic-related educational lags.

Kalispell Public Schools Assistant Superintendent Matt Jensen said that the MAST exams are “more relevant” than the current end-of-year tests and praised the flexibility of the program, which allows teachers to test within a limited window, rather than on a singular mandated day. He said that rigid testing structures that force students to sit for long tests on specific days can be largely unhelpful in measuring student progress, as students can get tested on a bad day or can get restless sitting for a long time, performing poorly. With MAST, teachers have flexibility on when to test their students and can measure learning throughout the year. Jensen highlighted the benefits of receiving “instantaneous feedback” on students’ performance multiple times per year that teachers “can turn around into something productive.”

“For years, educators have been asking for a more purposeful and useful state assessment system that allows us to adjust instruction and practice throughout the year based on student needs, instead of a system that assesses only once at the end of the school year,” Evergreen School District Superintendent Laurie Barron wrote in a statement to the Beacon. “These through-year assessments will give teachers immediate feedback on student achievement and needs, helping us adjust our practice and meet students’ needs more immediately.”

Montana Office of Public Instruction Superintendent Elsie Arntzen said that Flathead County’s participation in MAST is unique not only in the high number of districts enrolled, but in the diversity of their schools and student bodies. Arntzen said that carrying out testing in such a wide array of classrooms will help the state understand how the program will ultimately impact Montana’s diverse students.

“They’re all very unique and different and serve different populations,” Arntzen said of the participating districts in the Flathead Valley.

Brandy Carlenzoli, superintendent of the Fair-Mont-Egan School District, emphasized the importance of including a variety of schools in the pilot program, citing it as one of the reasons her district ultimately enrolled in MAST. Carlenzoli said her teachers are “on board with giving it a try and learning about” MAST and underscored the importance of considering rural schools like hers when testing experimental programs and charting the course for future education policies on the state level. Ultimately, Fair-Mont-Egan is “a little different” than larger, more urban districts in the state and wants to have a voice in the future of how Montana assesses its students, Carlenzoli said.

The district, which enrolls about 100 students, will administer only the math component of MAST to its fifth and seventh graders.

While OPI only needed 30 schools to enroll in the program, 46 signed up to participate, an overwhelming number Arntzen characterizes as “a thirst for this in Montana” that is “coming from teachers.”

Because MAST is a pilot program, students in MAST districts are still required to take Montana’s traditional year-end exams, which Arntzen said may have been a contributing factor to some districts opting-out, as to not require their students to sit through additional testing. The Cayuse Prairie, Columbia Falls, Creston, Deer Park, Helena Flats, Marion, Olney-Bissell, Pleasant Valley, Smith Valley, Somers, Swan River and West Valley school districts did not enroll their students in MAST. Arntzen said she hopes that in the next round of tests, other districts that have not already enrolled will choose to participate in the program.

The Office of Public Instruction in August was awarded nearly $3 million in funding through the U.S. Department of Education’s 2022 Competitive Grants for State Assessments (CGSA) program to create and implement MAST, which granted 11 states funding to reimagine statewide summative assessments. Though Arntzen expressed optimism about the future of MAST given the DOE’s backing of the program, she emphasized that MAST is about Montana teachers and students, not the federal government.

“They know their kids and they know their content area. They are proud of how they teach and what they teach,” Arntzen said of Montana teachers. “We couldn’t do this without the teachers raising their hands and saying, ‘Yes.’”