As the deadline for Montana to submit a plan to comply with a new federal education law approaches, the state is working to shore up the plan with suggestions from groups around the state — and bracing for federal criticism.
“We are concerned they might say our goals are not ambitious enough,” said Susie Hedalen, OPI’s director of educational services.
The plan calls for steep improvement on test scores for all Montana students, but especially students in typically low-performing groups, like students with disabilities and American Indians. Four percent of non-proficient students are expected to reach proficient scores each year, an unprecedented rate of improvement in Montana.
The Every Student Succeeds Act requires schools to continue giving standardized tests, but eliminates the goal of reaching 100 percent proficiency for all students. It does require states to set “ambitious” goals. Hedalen said the state plans to defend its goals, offering further explanation to federal officials if necessary.
Gov. Steve Bullock signed off on the plan Tuesday, after suggesting minor changes including the addition of a mention of early childhood education standards. States are required to submit plans to governors for review, but their signatures are not required for submission to the feds. Louisiana recently won approval from the U.S. Department of Education despite the state’s governor opposing the plan.
Montana’s deadline to submit the plan is Sept. 18. Federal officials review the plan then provide feedback, after which Montana has 15 days to respond with an updated plan. Neither OPI officials nor Bullock's office were able to provide a copy of the updated plan Wednesday; OPI provided a copy on Thursday.
The state has received feedback from several education groups, Hedalen said, but from only a handful of individual educators and school districts. Some of that has resulted in minor changes, like changing wording about Native American languages and adding references to groups like librarians and school psychologists.
A handful of educators shared feedback with Lee Montana Newspapers.
“We have a local school board that establishes a plan in the local community, but we also need that teamwork on the state and federal level,” said Casey Olsen, a Columbus High School English teacher. “From a rural school perspective that’s really important … From a standpoint of distance and resources, we need the state and federal government on our side, on our team.”
Some feedback includes praise for making issues like mental health and Indian Education For All a priority. In other cases, educators expressed frustration with a focus on test scores — a major tenet of federal requirements — and were worried that the plan lacks specifics to make good on its goals.
“I’m not an assessment specialist, but test scores aren’t everything and sometimes they’re nothing,” said Anna Baldwin, an Arlee English teacher and 2014 Montana Teacher of the Year. “We had eight or nine suicide attempts in a four-month period. It’s during spring. During testing. It was awful. It happens every few years and a bunch of horrible things that happen all at once.”
“There’s just things that are out of the control of schools and teachers that are nevertheless held against schools and teachers,” she said. “I don’t have a way of measuring whether my students are safe and presenting that information.”
OPI acknowledged criticism on test scores but said its hands are tied by federal regulations and that other parts of the plan, like mental health initiatives, haven’t gotten the same attention as testing.
“There was a bit of false advertising with ESSA that there’s going to be all this flexibility,” said Hedalen.
'How do we do that'
Several educators questioned what additional resources OPI would be applying to help schools hit those growth goals, especially for students who typically have the most trouble with standardized tests.
OPI Special Education Director Frank Podobnik said that despite the rejection of several special education funding initiatives by the state legislature, the plan must move forward.
“What we’re doing is submitting a plan that we believe is the right thing,” he said. “The right thing is to work hard and try to close the gap.”
Olsen wasn’t opposed to ambitious goals, so long as they weren’t tied to punitive measures. His biggest criticism was a lack of details following up on initiatives identified in the plan.
“OPI’s ESSA plan named admirable priorities … They reflect a plan that starts with the reality of where Montana is at and the issues Montana faces,” he said. “That’s positive. What’s problematic is ‘how do we do that.’”
He cited mental health as an example; Montana has one of the highest suicide rates in the nation.
“It makes sense that OPI’s plan would include those concerns,” he said. “Our schools are also in a great position to address that problem. (But) there are no concrete steps to address the problem that I’m seeing in the plan itself.”
Podobnik said that the state has a pair of grants for school climate and school safety with a focus on mental health enhancement.
Both Baldwin and Olsen cited OPI’s discontinuation of Graduation Matters, a privately funded program that offered grants to programs around the state with the goal of raising graduation rates.
“You had a program that was working,” Baldwin said, citing a recent increase in statewide graduation rates.
Hedalen noted that the plan intentionally doesn’t provide specifics in some areas, because OPI didn’t want to be locked into using a specific program. She cited ongoing exploration into options like using the ASVAB, a military readiness test, as criteria for college and career readiness. A survey for school climate hasn’t been developed yet, and questions remain about the reliability of school climate data — a relatively new concept.
“Some of the implementation is going to be spelled out when we get there,” she said.
The plan combines test score growth with other factors like attendance, school climate, behavior, student engagement and college and career readiness. ESSA requires states to try to improve schools with academic performance in the lowest 5 percent statewide.
Olsen would like to see the state go farther than five percent.
“There are many schools that need targeted support and guidance that would be ruled out in that number,” he said.
Olsen also said that he felt the plan could have communicated better why it set the test score goals that it does. OPI hosted explainer sessions on the plan in several communities over the summer; a meeting in Billings was attended by representatives from a handful of local school districts. Hedalen has cited Nevada’s state plan, which uses the same test score goal structure, but with 5 percent increases instead of 4 like Montana.
Communication with schools and communities will be critical in implementing any plan, Olsen said.
“They need to understand how the increase levels were arrived at,” he said. “There’s a balance that we need to strike between local communities, state agencies and the federal government. I feel like the plan … is still wrestling with that balance.”