BHS Electives

Will Kern, 17, draws out the plans for a hospital emergency room as part of a group presentation that he, Brittany Bos, 17, and Mariah Brelsford, 17, presented for their biomedical class at Bozeman High.

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Montana’s public schools no longer face the “shame and blame” of the old No Child Left Behind federal education law.

One year ago Congress passed a major overhaul of education law, a bipartisan bill called the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA. It gave a lot of power and responsibility back to the states to craft education policies.

As a result, Montana educators worked for several months to draft an 82-page plan spelling out how the state will encourage schools’ progress, close achievement gaps and turn around the worst performing schools. The draft plan is open for public comment until Friday.

Marilyn King, deputy superintendent for instruction with the Bozeman School District, was one of more than 30 educators statewide who worked with the state Office of Public Instruction to draft Montana’s plan.

King gave an overview to Bozeman School Board trustees this week, and later discussed the new plan’s positive aspects.

“We appreciate the focus on all students, and we take it seriously,” King said. For groups of students who historically have had lower achievement — such as low-income, minority students and students with disabilities — the new plan seeks to close achievement gaps, she said. “We’re keeping an eye on them.”

The draft plan says that Montana’s mission is to deliver a well-rounded, quality education to every child, set rigorous academic standards, and develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills through reading and math, the arts, health enhancement, science and civics.

Montana students will still take annual standardized tests in math and English — the Smarter Balanced tests in grades three to eight, and the ACT college-entrance test in grade 11.

Under No Child Left Behind, schools were labeled as failing if test scores didn’t hit targets that were raised every year. The final federal target was that by 2014, 100 percent of students had to score at grade level in reading and math — a goal educators criticized as impossible and designed to give public schools a black eye.

Under Montana’s new plan, King said, the goals are “achievable and realistic.”

ESSA requires that schools still produce report cards for the public. Montana schools would report how students are scoring on academic tests, whether they’re making progress in reading and math, graduation rates and whether students learning English are improving. Montana’s goal would be to raise the portion of English language learners who score at grade level from 45 to 51 percent by 2021.

Montana has proposed adding a fifth measure to the report card — school quality or climate, which means whether the school is inviting and safe, has high standards and responsive teachers, offers after-school activities and is connected to the community.

Montana’s 820 schools would be judged based on where they are starting, and whether their students are making progress from that point — rather than whether they’re hitting a “one size fits all” target score.

“Not everybody has to make the same bar at the same time,” King said, “but everybody’s trying to make significant improvements, because that’s right for kids.”

Under Montana’s draft plan, schools that score below the statewide average on the Smarter Balanced and ACT tests would be expected to make progress. Schools that score above the statewide average would be expected to maintain or improve their scores.

The draft calls for the state OPI to target “comprehensive” assistance to the 5 percent of poorest performing Title I schools — out of the 676 Montana schools that qualify for extra federal money because they have large numbers of low-income kids. That would be about 30 to 40 schools. OPI would set aside 7 percent of Montana’s federal Title I money to support those struggling schools, as required by ESSA.

The state would also focus comprehensive help on high schools where fewer than 67 percent of students graduate.

For struggling schools, rather than an outside takeover, OPI would provide guidance and feedback, extra training and extra federal money. If that didn’t turn a school around after three years, the state would send in a three-person team and offer more assistance.

Schools where subgroups, like minority students, don’t make progress for three years would get more targeted help from OPI.

Local school districts would be allowed to add information to their report cards, such as numbers of students taking dual-credit or Advanced Placement classes, King said.

There are several unknowns, King told the School Board, with new administrations coming into office in Helena and Washington.

Montana’s outgoing superintendent of public instruction, Denise Juneau, plans to submit the state’s plan to Washington by Dec. 23.

The deadline to submit public comments on the draft plan online at is 5 p.m. Friday.

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Gail Schontzler can be reached at 406-582-2633 or

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