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Montana OPI and New Meridian partner for new state testing system

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Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen

Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen talks with students at Montana City School on Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2021.

Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen is partnering with New Meridian, a nonprofit assessment development company, to develop and pilot a next-generation state testing system intended to better align with classroom teaching to support student learning.

“Montana's pilot is a major step forward in the next generation of assessment,” said Arthur VanderVeen, founder and CEO of New Meridian. “Summative assessment is critically important, but a single end-of-year test is just a snapshot. The testlet system will directly align with classroom instruction in a way that supports teachers and students all year long, while providing the data administrators need to make decisions. It makes a direct connection between assessment and learning.”

The new Montana Alternative Student Testing (MAST) pilot program will introduce an instructionally aligned "testlet" model, which will use short assessments that are closely connected to the classroom instruction to provide students with multiple opportunities throughout the school year to demonstrate their learning in both English language arts and math. The system will integrate culturally relevant test content designed with input from Montana educators, parents and students, reducing the inequities that result when testing differs from taught curriculum and lived experience.

Data from the testlets can be used by teachers to help shape classroom learning in real-time while aggregating to provide administrators and state officials with the information needed to make critical decisions.

“The MAST program has the potential to supplant the traditional end-of-year comprehensive test by using a series of shorter, more concentrated tests throughout the year,” said Bill Becker, an eighth-grade math teacher at Ronan Middle School. “By overlapping multiple standards within specific test items, the shorter tests aim to isolate which specific standards have been mastered and those which have not. This idea removes the over-reliance on one huge test which provides little actionable data to the current teacher, instead providing teachers more meaningful feedback throughout the year.”

With the support of philanthropic funding, content development for the testlet system began with a workshop this summer. Twenty-eight educators from Montana and 12 from Louisiana, another state piloting the system, spent a week writing test questions under the supervision of experts from the Montana Office of Public Instruction (OPI), the Louisiana Department of Education, and New Meridian. New Meridian is now conducting a thorough review of these questions for bias and sensitivity.

The Montana Alternative Student Testing system began as an effort to align legislative priorities and the Board of Public Education’s pursuit of a balanced assessment system statewide. OPI partnered with New Meridian to create an instructionally aligned assessment designed to provide greater consistency and comparability in determining student proficiency, while allowing for greater flexibility. The new system is designed to better support the needs of local communities and respond to requests for tests that better connect to local curricula and improve student learning.

The new system will be rolled out in at least 30 districts starting this fall, with a minimum of 3,200 students in grades five and seven taking the testlets. Based on the results, OPI and New Meridian will evaluate and improve the system, expanding it to include grades four and six in the 2023-24 school year. The pilot is scheduled to continue in the 2025-26 school year, expanding again to encompass third through eighth grade.

Those interested in learning more can visit the OPI website for full details on the pilot program.

“Montana schools will be better served through assessments that reflect true teaching and learning,” said Arntzen. “Classroom instruction is the focus, with less teacher time taken on assessment preparation. Montana is leading the way on reimagining the one-size-fits-all student assessments of the past.”

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Megan Michelotti can be reached at


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