education

Belgrade High School students improved their scores and bested their peers around the state on the 2019 state-administered ACT test, but district’s Curriculum Director Mark Halgren isn’t entirely satisfied by those results.

“We need to stop looking at just being above the state average,” Halgren said about the 2019 scores just released by the Montana Office of Public Instruction. “We need to start achieving what other kids in the valley are achieving.”

This year’s Belgrade High School seniors took the standardized ACT tests last year, as did high school juniors all over the state. The standardized test is Montana’s statewide assessment for high school students for federal reporting purposes.

Belgrade High School students achieved a composite score of 20.2 in 2019, compared to the statewide composite score of 19.6. In addition to scoring higher than their peers across the state, Belgrade students also improved their scores over the prior two years, when BHS composite scores were 19.9 in 2018 (compared to 19.6 statewide), and 19.1 in 2017 (compared to 19.7 statewide).

ACT composite scores are determined by a student’s scores from the four portions of the exam – English, mathematics, reading and science – which range from a low of 1 to a high of 36. The composite score is the average of the four test scores, rounded to the nearest whole number.

“The goal for the high school district is an ACT composite score of 21,” Halgren said. “Our trend line is certainly moving in the right direction.”

Belgrade High students did not score as well as their peers at Bozeman High School, where the composite score for 2019 was 22.0. The challenge for Belgrade educators, Halgren said, is to continue to identify and implement ways that will help students perform better on the standardized exam.

One example is a dedicated ACT review program, which was started at the high school two years ago. While not a full course, it is a tool that students in improving their ACT scores can use to learn strategies for improving their ACT scores.

“As much as we hate to admit it, being familiar with the format of the test has been proven to increase performance,” Halgren explained.

Also being emphasized district-wide are improved writing skills, which include not only topic development and critical argumentation strategies, but keyboarding skills and perseverance.

“Teaching kids to persevere and come up with a finished product is something we have 

to work on,” Halgren said. “The standards now really emphasize being able to form an argument or response to a written piece. Our kids need to work on that, and we need to work on that with our kids.”

Halgren is optimistic about Belgrade High achieving the ACT composite goal of 21 in the not-too-distant future, in part because of trends Belgrade administrators are noticing in the younger grades.

“We are seeing good improvement in the elementary schools on the SBAC (Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium) tests,” he said. “Hopefully that will translate into higher scores as they get older.”

But now that Belgrade High has grown into a AA school, Halgren also believes that to best serve students, it may be necessary to add instructional coaches and other resources commonly employed by larger districts. That’s something that hasn’t been possible in Belgrade, where in recent years voters have been willing to finance new school buildings, but unwilling to approve operational mill levies.

“We’re going to work as hard as we possibly can, but if we want our kids to compete with AA schools, we’re going to have to make investments like they have made,” Halgren said.  “We’re on the cusp of needing what other AA districts have.”

Elsewhere in Gallatin County the smaller high schools reported mixed results for this year’s AP assessment. Manhattan High’s composite 2018 score was 19.87 (down from 20.82 in 2018 and 20.23 in 2017), while students in Three Forks improved their composite score of 19.06 in 2018, compared to 18.82 in 2018 and 18.61 in 2017.

 More information about 2019 statewide and local ACT scores can be accessed at opi.mt.gov.