The Montana Board of Public Education voted unanimously Friday to support a request by the Office of Public Instruction to waive standardized testing requirements for another year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. If granted by the U.S. Department of Education, the waiver would exempt school districts across the state from having to administer academic assessments this spring, including the ACT.

In a letter slated for inclusion with OPI’s request, the board said that while such assessments are key to improving education and directing federal funding, requiring schools to conduct statewide testing in the midst of a health crisis is “not the best way to measure student success at this time.” Deputy Superintendent of Public Instruction Sharyl Allen informed the board that OPI also received a letter of support from Gov. Greg Gianforte and collected public comment on the waiver throughout January. All of that information will be submitted alongside the waiver request on Feb. 5, Allen said.

Montana was granted a similar exemption last March in an attempt to enable schools to focus on the more immediate challenges raised by the pandemic. The decision gave districts the option to cancel a broad swath of tests typically conducted statewide in the spring to measure academic achievement, among them the Smarter Balanced tests administered to students in grades 3-8. Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen is effectively asking for that exemption to be extended through the current academic year.

“It is not getting easier, it is getting more challenging for students and their teachers. To quote a local superintendent, ‘our teachers are working double-time and they are exhausted.’ A test, at this time, is not where our efforts need to be deployed.”

Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen

“I feel duty-bound to convey the needs of our schools today,” Arntzen wrote in her letter requesting the latest waiver. “It is not getting easier, it is getting more challenging for students and their teachers. To quote a local superintendent, ‘our teachers are working double-time and they are exhausted.’ A test, at this time, is not where our efforts need to be deployed.”

The National Center for Education Statistics, which administers its own standardized test each year, announced in December it is postponing testing until 2022 due to COVID-19.

During its discussion Friday, the board concurred that administering statewide assessments would create an added burden on Montana educators. The board’s vice chair, Tammy Lacey of Great Falls, noted that such testing isn’t as simple as just handing out a booklet and having students fill in bubbles. There’s considerable prep work, she said, and requiring teachers to dedicate previous time to that work would be “very inappropriate.” Board member Sharon Carroll of Ekalaka said that, as a teacher herself, she agreed.

“Sitting in the classroom with students, I don’t know where I’m going to find the time with children in and out of my classroom to really administer and provide a test that will provide the kind of data that would be good to use,” Carroll said.

Board Chair Darlene Schottle of Bigfork said she was surprised to hear from a number of local superintendents who preferred not to cancel assessments in the hope of gauging how their students are doing academically almost a year into the pandemic. Several other members noted that if the waiver is granted, districts and individual teachers do still have options to assess students’ academic performance. Anne Keith of Bozeman said a number of elementary school teachers she’s visited are already doing just that.

“They’re doing daily digs to see exactly where their kids are weak and what skills need to be filled,” Keith said. “They would say they’re doing more assessments than ever, and this year they don’t need this big state test to tell them where their kids are lacking.”

According to OPI’s waiver timeline, once the request is submitted, the U.S. Department of Education has until June to respond.

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Staff reporter Alex Sakariassen covers the education beat and the state Legislature for Montana Free Press. Alex spent the past decade writing long-form narrative stories that spotlight the people, the politics, and the wilds of Montana. A North Dakota native, he splits his free time between Missoula’s ski slopes and the quiet trout water of the Rocky Mountain Front. Contact Alex by email at asakariassen@montanafreepress.org.