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Montana's Report of ACT Scores to Feds Called Into Question

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Feds skeptical of ACT for high school accountability Montana Wisconsin Wyoming.jpgUPDATED: Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen announced Friday that the state's ACT scores, which it uses for federal accountability, have been called into question.

In a briefing to the state board of education, and then to the news media, Arntzen said she had learned from a "whistleblower" who contacted her legal team that the 2016 ACT results submitted to the federal Education Department, under her predecessor, Denise Juneau, "did not meet state or federal reporting standards and misrepresented student proficiency."

Arntzen, who took office two weeks ago, said that in its 2016 submission to federal officials, Montana indicated that it had set proficiency levels on the ACT for Montana students, when in fact "there are none." The state, Arntzen said, reported to the federal government that all Montana students were proficient.

Arntzen said that she is looking into the matter with the U.S. Department of Education, and that student data "has not been compromised." She added that the state still views the ACT as valuable and plans to continue to administer it to students.

Reached Friday night, Juneau told Education Week that she did indeed submit a report to the U.S. Department of Education that showed "3s across the board" for high school students—proficiency, according to Montana's accountability ratings. She said she did so because the U.S. Department of Education's electronic submission system would accept only single-digit figures, a problem for ACT scores, which range from 1 to 36. 

Montana didn't work with ACT to convert its score range to equivalents on the state's 1 through 4 accountability system levels, Juneau said, so she submitted all 3s "because we had to submit something. We couldn't leave those spaces blank." She assumed that the situation would get sorted out when the department responded to the report, she said. But the report was submitted in December, and Juneau left office by the end of the month.

Juneau said she held a transition meeting with Arntzen during that month, and many topics were discussed, but not the matter of the ACT scores. Juneau did not reach out to the federal education department to notify officials there that the 3s she reported were nothing more than placeholders, she said.

Juneau point out, however, that Montana never reported to the public that all high school juniors were proficient on the ACT. The ACT score reports published on Montana's website show schools' average ACT scores, and the percentages of students at ACT's "college-ready" levels.

Sixteen states, including Montana, require all students to take the ACT. Montana is also one of a handful of states that use the college-entrance exam to measure high school achievement instead of a state test. 

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