Montana OPI updates lawmakers on efforts to address educational gaps

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Posted at 6:43 PM, Sep 12, 2022
and last updated 2022-09-12 20:43:38-04

HELENA — At the Montana State Capitol Monday, the state Office of Public Instruction gave lawmakers a closer look at some of the educational gaps that still remain among students statewide.

The Montana Legislature’s Education Interim Committee held its final planned meeting of the year this week. There, OPI delivered updates on several state programs aimed at tackling those gaps, as required by state law.

One of the reports covered the student achievement gap facing American Indian students in Montana. Carrie Gopher, OPI’s director of American Indian Student Achievement, said the state serves 15,752 Native American students – 22,375 including Alaska Natives and multiracial students.

Between 2019 and 2021, the percentage of students scoring at least “proficient” on the Smarter Balanced assessment and on the ACT fell, for both Native and non-Native students – but a difference in proficiency between the two groups remained evident. The largest gaps were in the ACT, where 48% of non-Native high school juniors were in the “proficient” or “advanced” levels in 2021, while just 18% of Native students were. In math, 29% of non-Native students scored proficient or higher, compared to 9% of Native students.

For Native students during the 2021 school year, 55% of reading scores on the Smarter Balanced test were in the “novice” category – the lowest group of scores. That’s compared to 24% for non-Native students. In math, 64% of Native students scored in the novice level, compared to 29% of non-native students.

Graduation rates for Native students have also decreased slightly. Gopher said leaders believe some students may be taking longer than four years to graduate, so they’re looking at ways to get data on the fifth year.

Gopher said, in cooperation with the Montana Advisory Council on Indian Education, or MACIE, they’ve been talking about how to address issues that affect these students differently, like historical trauma and community grief.

“The kinship within an indigenous community is a lot different, so when there’s a death in a family, it affects almost the whole reservation – almost every family in, I’ll say Rocky Boy – because some way, somehow we’re all related,” she said. “The direction that the MACIE group gave us is to find different avenues of educating the stakeholders on how to deal with grief, and to address the tidbits that, as a Native American person, that we can’t talk about. How do we help our people heal from this grieving process when we can’t even speak about it?”

The state sets aside $200 per American Indian child – more than $3 million a year – to support school districts’ efforts to close the gap.

Rep. Fred Anderson, R-Great Falls, who presided over the meeting as the committee’s vice-chair, said he found the results for Native and non-Native students alike to be troubling.

“I think that’s certainly fertile ground for more discussion, and proactive action,” he said.

Also during Monday’s meeting, OPI leaders discussed a gap in proficiency between Title I schools – which receive federal funding and state assistance because they serve a large number of students from low-income households – and other schools. In recent years, between 75% and 80% of Montana public school students have been enrolled in Title I schools.

In 2021, Smarter Balanced math and reading scores were lower at Title I schools than others, with the gap being particularly noticeable in third through fifth grades.

OPI leaders noted that the numbers they shared Monday are already changing. Later that day, the agency released assessment data for the 2022 school year to the public. MTN will take a closer look at those numbers later this week.