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As students across Montana begin Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium testing, many parents are left wondering what exactly the test is and the point behind it all.

Students grades three through eight have a window between April 15 and May 17 to complete SBAC testing in Helena. The six to seven hour test is administered statewide by trained school staff, typically educators, sometime during the state assessment window March 20 to May 24, according to Ashley McGrath, the Office of Public Instruction's state assessment director.

All students in grades three through eight take the test, unless opted out by their parents. 

The SBAC is what Montana uses to fulfill requirements of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. That act was passed with intent to reduce the educational achievement gap by providing equal educational opportunities for all children, explained Helena assessment coordinator Jilyn Chandler.

That act has been reauthorized numerous times. In 2001, President George W. Bush reauthorized it as the No Child Left Behind act. Then, in 2015, President Barack Obama reauthorized the act as the Every Student Succeeds Act. 

Every Student Succeeds governs public schools across the United States. 

"Under ESSA there is a requirement that Montana, like all other states, test all students in English language arts and math in grades three through eight and once in high School," Chandler said. "Montana chose the SBAC as our state test for English and math in grades three through eight and the ACT as our English and math assessment for high school."

Schools across Montana administer both tests in the spring of each year. Helena schools tested nearly 700 juniors at Lewis & Clark County Fairgrounds on April 2. 

McGrath said testing is important for both federal and state, under Montana Content Standards, compliance. 

"It provides a comprehensive system of assessments to support instructional practice," McGrath said. "And yields usable scores to describe what every student can know and can do to meet the standards." 

The test is an online computer adaptive test. In addition to the computer adaptive portion, students also answer questions with short constructed responses and complete performance tasks for which they are given set questions centered around a common topic, Chandler said. 

The "adaptive" part means that the tests are customized to each student's experience and the difficulty of questions changes based on student responses during the test. 

"In this way, adaptive tests provide more precise information about student achievement in less time than a 'fixed form' test in which all students see the same set of questions," McGrath said. 

Chandler said once testing is complete, the district receives state, district, school and individual student level data and reports. Individual student reports are sent home with the student who was tested. 

"Since SBAC is aligned to the Montana Content Standards we are able to analyze this data as it relates directly to our state standards," Chandler said. "From this data, we are able to set district, school and individual student goals for the next school year. We even use this data each fall when we write our Continuous School Improvement Plans for OPI."

The district doesn't focus on the average scores for the SBAC or ACT, Chandler said. Instead, it focuses on the percentage of students who are meeting or exceeding the standards in each academic area for SBAC. 

"As an internal measure, we have the goal of more students learning more," Chandler said. "Externally, we look at our percent proficient in comparison to the state’s percent proficient."

McGrath said the state has to administer assessments in the specific Every Student Succeeds content areas to receive state title funding and to program state assessment grant funding.

"Schools that are identified for comprehensive or targeted support (by which SBAC is a measure) receive some additional Title 1 resources to improve student outcomes and are tied to comprehensive school improvement plans," added Dylan Klapmeier, OPI's director of communications. 

SBAC testing helps OPI measure student achievement and improvements, identify gaps and equity issues and inform programs and policy for the educational community, explained McGrath. 

"Overall, the purpose of the test is to meet federal testing requirements," Klapmeier said. "However, Montana makes the best use of our data to improve student outcomes, knowing that one test does not paint a complete picture of a student's education experience." 

Chandler, who maintains over a decade worth of data for Helena schools, said that the Helena school district has continued to be above the state average in English language arts, math and on ACT scores.

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Education and Business Reporter

Education and Business reporter for Helena Independent Record.

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