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This story is excerpted from the MT Lowdown, a weekly newsletter digest containing original reporting and analysis published every Friday.

Friday marked the end of yet another school year for the vast majority of Montana’s roughly 149,900 public school students. And for a small sliver of them — approximately 5,000 5th and 7th graders, according to the Office of Public Instruction — the past nine months have been punctuated by a slight change in testing. In addition to the usual end-of-year standardized tests, those students took a series of mid-year math and reading assessments as part of a statewide pilot program administered by OPI.

The goal of the pilot, as MTFP has previously reported, is to explore the potential of a new system for gauging student achievement. While experimentation with new exams is something seasoned educators are all too accustomed to, state Superintendent Elsie Arntzen hopes the new model will ultimately help teachers better understand where K-12 students are on their learning path while there’s still time in the year to address any issues. To that end, Arntzen plans to expand the pilot this fall to grades 3 through 8, widening the sample pool OPI needs to make an informed decision.


So far, participating students have had to take the tests in addition to the usual slate of spring exams, raising concern among parents and teachers about excessive testing burdens. Arntzen made a move last month to alleviate that concern in the pilot’s second year, applying for a waiver from the U.S. Department of Education to exempt those students from end-of-year testing. According to OPI spokesperson Brian O’Leary, the waiver approval process “takes time,” but Arntzen spoke with a senior adviser at the department May 17 and was told the federal government would do “everything it can” to grant Montana’s request.

“The superintendent is moving forward with the verbal yes,” O’Leary wrote, adding that OPI hopes to get official approval this summer. How many districts choose to participate, and how many students will be added to the pilot, won’t be clear until fall.


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...