- Associated Press - Friday, June 19, 2015

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - Montana will keep doing business with a testing company despite technical flaws this year that likely dropped the state below a required participation rate, the state’s top education official said.

The decision to honor a five-year contract came as state Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau announced Thursday that about 82 percent of Montana’s public-school students took the assessments provided electronically by Measured Progress. If the figure is confirmed by the federal government, 2015 would be the first year Montana has failed to reach the 95 percent participation rate required under the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act.

Juneau made the tests voluntary about two weeks into the process after widespread technical glitches made the exams nearly impossible to take at some schools.

“For statewide tests that were optional for schools to give, the idea that we still got an 82 percent participation rate I think is significant and I think shows Montana schools want that information” Juneau said.

The problems stemmed from Smarter Balanced, a consortium that crafts Common Core tests, and the social science organization American Institutes for Research, Juneau said. She applauded Measured Progress - the test provider that contracted with Montana, Nevada and North Dakota - for working with Montana officials throughout the complications.

“I can honestly say that they did their best at addressing all the problems that were laid out for them as a part of the process and platform that was given to them,” Juneau said of Measured Progress.

Montana is in a five-year contract with Measured Progress that began in 2014, said Emilie Ritter Saunders, spokeswoman for Juneau and the state Office of Public Instruction. The state paid the company $1.33 million for services this year as part of the $6.62 million contract, Saunders said.

Unlike Nevada, which filed breach-of-contract notices with Measured Progress and Smarter Balanced for botching their exams, Montana has taken no action against the company. Juneau met with state Attorney General Tim Fox about the issues in April, but the Office of Public Instruction never asked to take legal action, Fox’s spokesman John Barnes said.

The U.S. Department of Education will conduct a final assessment of state participation rates in the coming months and determine what qualifies as test completion among participating students.

Montana’s rate was calculated based on the 62,100 students of 76,000 possible test-takers who at least started an exam, Saunders said. But the federal agency could define participation differently and, ultimately, affect the federal funding that comes with it.

“We have not made any decisions, as many states are still testing students and will not send us data until later in the summer,” Dorie Nolt, U.S. Department of Education press secretary, said in an email.

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