Montana’s fourth- and eighth-grade students scored more than 10 points higher than the national average on the National Assessment of Educational Progress test, which is administered by the U.S. Department of Education. But while Montana students exceeded the national average on this assessment of science content, state schools received low marks on other recent reports.

In the NAEP test, in which Montana students excelled, each grade was tested early last year. Fourth-graders scored an average of 160 compared to the national average of 149; eighth-graders scored 162 with a national average also of 149.

The NAEP results also show low-income students in Montana scored at or above the national average by 15 points for fourth grade and 18 points higher in eighth.

“This is great news, especially considering how the fields of science, medicine, and technology are growing in our 21 st century economy,” said Denise Juneau, superintendent of public instruction. “These scores demonstrate that our teachers are preparing students for the jobs of today and tomorrow.”

But the other tests say differently.

The state received a mediocre overall grade from the Quality Counts report, published in January, and in another report titled “Yearbook,” the National Council on Teacher Quality identified areas on policies that need critical attention to ensure students have effective teachers.

Quality Counts, the report card on the quality of education put out by Education Week, gave Montana a “C-” grade overall — 47th of all states.

Some variables prevent Montana from scoring well, Helena Superintendent Bruce Messinger said.

“One reason Montana ranks low is because they give value to things we may not,” he said.

Two key components of the low score are no public preschool in the school system and the lack of the definition of “school readiness.”

For instance, the Helena public school system does not perform kindergarten screening, while others, such as East Helena, do.

“We have benefited from many years from homogeniality and well-educated households, but there is a chance we won’t keep up if we continue to rely on that,” Messinger said.

So while many of Montana’s smallest learners — 3 and 4 year olds — are enrolled in some type of preschool program, the fact that the state does not assess readiness when these students enter school and does not offer programs for children not meeting expectations, it affected the rating.

Messinger said failing to invest in young children is an area of concern. Another is failing to articulate clear and achievable pathways for students as they enter high school and plan for college and careers.

Last year Montana received an “F” from the National Council on Teacher Quality with no progress noted over the prior year. The Yearbook report is privately funded by such primary sponsors as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Carnegie Corp. of New York and The Joyce Foundation.

Sandi Jacobs, vice president of NCTQ based in Washington, D.C., said the biggest problem is Montana has made no significant policy changes in the four years of the review.

“There are some states (where) we’ve seen signification changes,” she said, but Montana is not one of them.

The report recommends that Montana adopt a policy that requires objective evidence of student learning — including but not limited to standardized test scores — to be the preponderant criterion of teacher evaluations. Furthermore, the state should require all nonprobationary teachers be evaluated annually regardless of their previous performances, the report states.

In Helena, Messinger sits downs with building administrators twice a year to discuss the performance of a nontentured teacher and whether to renew that teacher’s contract.

Tenured teachers here have a choice of staying on an annual rating system, or if they’re performing at a satisfactory level, they can be on the “professional growth” path where they set goals to be monitored by a formal evaluation every three years.

Messinger said the district is in the middle of reviewing this process, as is a statewide committee.

Dennis Parman, deputy superintendent with the Office of Public Instruction, co-chairs the Chapter 55 Review Task Force.

For the most part Montana does not mandate how a district evaluates and tenures teachers; those are bargained decisions at the local level, he said.

“One of the issues is frequency, and we are still in the process — although on hiatus now due to the legislative session — of looking at evaluations for not only teachers but school leaders,” Parman said. “There are districts that do it for nontenured (staff) as often as three times a year, but there is no state rule in regards to frequency. In fact, the rule merely says trustees will set a policy to evaluate, so it’s really left up to the local trustees.

“But, it’s on the radar and we are going to address that.”

Sarah Brody, the NCTQ Yearbook project assistant, said the report is also critical for the lack of tying student performance to those evaluations.

“Evaluations are completely disconnected to bringing about student achievement,” she said. “(Teachers) earn tenure whether they are successful in the classroom or not.”

Parman said student achievement is part of the discussion as it relates to evaluations, but admits the review committee isn’t leaning toward establishing it as a rule because so much is bargained locally.

Another of Montana’s critical attention areas on this report is teacher licensing. In Montana a first-grade teacher has the same accreditation as a seventh-grade history teacher. The report says teachers need specific content preparation and urges Montana to implement subject-matter teaching as part of teacher certification policies. Montana is just one of a handful of states yet to adopt subject-matter teaching requirements.

“Can we really be an expert (on every subject)? Probably not,” Messinger said.

Rural states argue they need flexibility, but Brody says that flexibility comes at the expense of preparation of having specialized knowledge.

Messinger says it’s a fair criticism that warrants review because it’s likely high school students would perform better with content expertise.

A third annual report — a collaborative effort with the Bureau of Business and Economic Research, the University of Montana and funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation — offers insights to the condition of the children in the Treasure State and by county.

The 2010 Montana Kids Count data reported that the participation in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, increased by 25 percent over prior year. The report also noted that one-fourth of children under the age of 5 live in poverty, and the number of licensed child care slots decreased.

Messinger said poverty is the single greatest risk factor for Montana students enrolled in education, including post-secondary.

In Lewis and Clark County last year there were 5,646 participants in SNAP, up from 3,306 in 2000.

Messinger said it’s worrisome that poverty has increased in Montana because a child who is hungry and/or unhealthy finds it difficult to learn in the classroom. He also fears that such programs to help aid these children could likely lose their funding in the current Legislature.

Messinger said all reports offer pieces of information that can be useful. He acknowledges that the education profession as a whole is lacking in data so it can be beneficial to utilize what is out there.

Reporter Alana Listoe: 447-4081 or alana.listoe@helenair.com

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