On the Leading Edge: Montana’s Approach to Assessment Innovation

The Future of Summative Assessment: A Statewide Approach to Innovation edLeader Panel recording screenshot

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Assessing student knowledge does not need to happen just at the end of the year—a practice that delivers data too late to enhance teaching and learning. Instead, assessing student progress throughout the year can substantially grow academic success.

Montana is on the leading edge of this work. The edLeader Panel “The Future of Summative Assessment: A Statewide Approach to Innovation” highlights the state’s pioneering approach to through-year assessment that provides actionable data at the beginning of the school year and a meaningful, replicable model of student achievement.

Assessment Innovation: Montana’s Approach

Montana questioned the value of summative assessments. Much was invested in them, but the return rate for teachers, students, and families came too late—at the end or beginning of the school year. Not enough time to address teaching and learning challenges. The state took an assessment stand.

Launched in 2021, the Montana Alternative Student Testing (MAST) Pilot is based on New Meridian’s MasteryGuide Assessment. The through-year assessment solution provides data to classroom teachers throughout the year and a scaled summative score for accountability at the end of the year.

MasteryGuide uses a set of short mini-assessments or “testlets” that are flexibly aligned to classroom instruction so teachers can adjust lessons to students’ individual learning needs. Teachers receive reports quickly, using data to intervene and enrich student learning in real time. Scoring models aggregate the testlet scores into a final summative score that meets federal accountability requirements.

Three critical components have shaped Montana’s assessment model:

  1. Instructional utility is at the core of the effort’s design. Testing throughout the year provides formative and summative data that drive instructional decisions.
  2. Districts flexibly align testing with local scope and sequence, offering curricular coherence while allowing teachers to decide when to test based on what they are teaching in alignment with standards.
  3. The assessment design reflects the state’s high population of Indigenous students in Tribal Nations, focusing on Montana’s rural environment and nature.

MAST is set to replace the current end-of-the-year summative assessment statewide in the 2024-2025 school year.

A Federal Waiver to Do the Work

Montana was fortunate to be granted a U.S. Department of Education field test flexibility waiver that allowed Montana to expand MAST for one year without the “double-testing” that often comes with trying out new assessment models. The pathway enabled the state to produce a better product through testing and iteration.

The conditions that allowed Montana to implement MAST were: 

  • The one-year timeline without double-testing would not disrupt the identification cycles of schools for accountability purposes. Schools identified in the prior year as part of the last testing cycle would still receive interventions and support over the next year.
  • The Department of Education viewed Montana’s approach as a model to incentivize states to drive assessment innovation by affording them flexibility.
  • Montana did not have an Innovative Assessment Demonstration Authority (IADA) application window for its assessment model. It would then have had to double-test students or apply for the waiver authority, ultimately leading to the successful through-year model solution.

Addressing Challenges to Benefit Students

Montana’s assessment approach considers educational disparities and access to background knowledge. Where students live often determines what they are exposed to and have access to. Often, items on tests do not align with what students recognize. Assessment scores underscore those gaps.

The through-year approach allows students to demonstrate that they have learned the content they have been taught and increases the frequency of feedback students receive to improve their learning continuously.

Stakeholder Engagement and Feedback

Critical to the model’s construction is stakeholder involvement.

Feedback cycles have allowed district leaders, teachers, special education directors, and IT directors to share pilot concerns, such as providing flexibility for ease of usability and ensuring that the assessment model vision and focus are met. In the pilot’s third year, feedback cycles will also engage students, parents, community members, and legislators to ensure buy-in to the statewide approach.

Montana is not alone in its efforts to use assessments to provide relevant and actionable data that can inform instruction and intervention. It’s among a growing number of states experimenting with new ways to assess learning, a good sign that barriers to assessment innovation will dissipate over time.

Learn more about this edWeb broadcast, The Future of Summative Assessment: A Statewide Approach to Innovation, sponsored by New Meridian.

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New MeridianNew Meridian is an assessment design and development company committed to advancing equity in education by developing assessments that focus on the skills that matter: critical thinking, problem solving, and effective communication. Data from our assessments enable educators to be more responsive to students’ learning needs to ensure all students have the opportunity to master critical grade-level learning standards and graduate prepared for future success.

Understanding 'Through-Year' Assessment: What Everyone Should Know


Article by Michele Israel, based on this edLeader Panel