Montana joined at least half a dozen other states last month in asking the federal government to waive its required standardized testing for schoolchildren this spring. But under a new directive issued by the U.S. Department of Education last week, schools across the state will be required to administer the testing this year, despite the ongoing pandemic.

In a letter announcing the decision, the department said standardized test results will be critical in gauging the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on learning, and will give parents an indication of how their children are doing.

“We must also specifically be prepared to address the educational inequities that have been exacerbated by the pandemic,” Acting Assistant Secretary Ian Rosenblum wrote, “including by using student learning data to enable states, school districts, and schools to target resources and supports to the students with the greatest needs.”

Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen responded critically to the announcement last week. Arntzen’s office had already submitted a waiver request Feb. 5 to put off testing for the 2020-2021 school year — a repeat of the waiver Montana applied for and received during the onset of the pandemic in the spring of 2020. In her response to Rosenblum’s announcement, Arntzen urged President Joe Biden to remove the federal mandate for this spring.

“Montana’s families, students, and schools know what’s best for their children,” Arntzen said. “Across Montana, elected school board trustees are accountable with their resilient efforts of enhancing student learning in these uncertain times.”

Rosenblum did note that the Department of Education will be offering states some flexibility for standardized testing. That flexibility includes options to administer shortened versions of tests, conduct testing remotely or extend the testing window into the summer. States could also secure waivers for certain measuring and reporting activities related to school performance and to adjust for participation rates below the department’s 95% requirement.

The Montana Board of Public Education did not comment on the department’s announcement except to reiterate its support for Montana’s Feb. 5 waiver request. In a letter sent with that request, the board stated that “due to the COVID-19 pandemic, serving the basic needs of our students has been challenging and requiring our schools to implement statewide testing is not the best way to measure student success at this time.”

Lance Melton, executive director of the Montana School Boards Association, told Montana Free Press that Montana schools are currently operating in-person at higher levels than schools in other areas of the country, some of which continue to operate entirely remotely. Even so, Melton said, MTSBA’s preference would be to “see the dust settle a bit” before districts are required to administer a standardized assessment.

“We appreciate that the Biden administration is inviting requests for waivers from the accountability and school identification requirements,” Melton said. “The fact is, our members are very much aware of the challenges this pandemic has created for effective learning, and they are leading the way to ensure that we overcome the effects of the pandemic and continue to open doors to opportunity and equity for each child in every public school in Montana.”

Melton added that statewide results aren’t necessarily going to be the best way to determine students’ progress after the past year. Rather, Montana’s education system will have to take stock of the status of “each and every child in every public school,” he said.

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Alex Sakariassen is a 2008 graduate of the University of Montana's School of Journalism, where he worked for four years at the Montana Kaimin student newspaper and cut his journalistic teeth as a paid news intern for the Choteau Acantha for two summers. After obtaining his bachelor's degree in journalism and history, Sakariassen spent nearly 10 years covering environmental issues and state and federal politics for the alternative newsweekly Missoula Independent. He transitioned into freelance journalism following the Indy's abrupt shuttering in September 2018, writing in-depth features, breaking...