The U.S. Department of Education has denied Montana’s request to cancel standardized testing for public school students this year. In a letter received Tuesday by Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen, the agency stated that Montana had not made a compelling argument for how its request would advance student academic achievement or how the state would continue providing assistance to low-achieving students.

“The Department believes that, consistent with the [Elementary and Secondary Education Act], states should do the best they can to maximize the number of students who are assessed with comparable, reliable, and valid statewide summative assessments,” wrote DOE Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy and Programs Ian Rosenblum.

Arntzen submitted the request in February asking the federal government to waive Montana’s assessment requirements due to the challenges of conducting standardized testing during the COVID-19 pandemic. The request was supported by the Montana Board of Public Education, as well as U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, U.S. Rep. Matt Rosendale, Gov. Greg Gianforte, the Montana American Indian Caucus and the Montana Federation of Public Employees. In a letter to DOE dated April 1, MFPE President Amanda Curtis said that after a year of “unprecedented upheaval,” standardized tests are the “last thing students, families or educators need.”

“The Department believes that, consistent with the [Elementary and Secondary Education Act], states should do the best they can to maximize the number of students who are assessed with comparable, reliable, and valid statewide summative assessments.”

IAN ROSENBLUM, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy and Programs, U.S. Department of Education

“During the most tumultuous school year ever experienced by students or teachers, not one minute of instruction time should be sacrificed to administer a statewide assessment,” Curtis wrote. “Instead, intensifying instruction and support for students traumatized by the impact of the coronavirus should be Montana’s top priority.”

In its denial, DOE acknowledged that it recognizes not all schools will be able to safely or successfully administer standardized testing this year. School districts can utilize other assessments to gauge student learning, the letter said, but those assessments will not be viewed as replacements for federally recognized tests such as the ACT. DOE stressed its position that data gleaned from statewide testing will help identify learning gaps that have been exacerbated by the pandemic — a stance that public education advocates in Montana have repeatedly challenged. The denial falls in line with a directive issued by DOE last month requiring all states to resume testing.

The Montana Office of Public Instruction responded to the denial Wednesday by saying it will adapt the assessment process to include a shortened version of the test and will extend testing windows and grant medical exemptions to students. OPI added that no student will be expected to attend school in person solely for the purpose of taking a standardized test. The office did secure a separate waiver that will ensure schools won’t risk losing federal funding if their assessment participation rate falls below 95% this year.

“In Montana we work for our students and families,” Arntzen said in an emailed statement Wednesday. “Statewide mandated testing from the federal government misses the mark of  putting our Montana students first. Montana is not alone in the pursuit of maximum flexibilities and providing opportunities to assess at the local level. Our proposal was to use local assessments for accountability rather than adding another layer of federal testing.”

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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...