- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Independent Record, Dec. 23, on student standardized testing:

Montana students ended up with low marks on a recent round of standardized testing, but the coordinators of the exam are the ones with the real performance issues.

The problems started before the testing even began, as the online platform used to administer the exams was not ready by the beginning of the testing window on March 18 or by Montana’s scheduled start date of March 25.

And the problems got worse after the testing started March 30.

The system crashed in some Montana schools because the platform was not able to support the number of students using it. School officials also reported the system was freezing and that some students got locked out and couldn’t get back in.

The problems resulted in a scheduling and logistical nightmare for educators, which ended up interfering with student instruction time.

Some eligible students never even took the exam, as the state allowed schools to opt out of testing because of the difficulties it was causing. Even when students did finish the test, some of the data had to be discarded because of other glitches.

Since the Smarter Balanced tests are generally considered to be more rigorous than previous evaluations, the results released this week cannot be compared to prior data to determine whether schools are improving or not. The new standardized tests were intended to establish a new baseline for school leaders to measure their success, but the incomplete results won’t serve that purpose very well either.

What did this round of exams accomplish? It apparently made someone a lot of money, as the state spent millions of dollars in the process.

Montana is part of the Smarter Balanced consortium of states, which designed the tests and then contracted with American Institutes for Research to create an open platform accessible to vendors. While the proprietary platform AIR used during pilot testing worked fine, the platform used by the state’s vendor Measured Progress did not.

State officials say Measured Progress provided the only bid the state could afford to pay. And while some states have rejected the consortium to go it alone, it’s unlikely that Montana could get anything better with the limited funding available.

Some states that experienced many of the same problems as Montana have threatened legal action, and North Dakota is seeking more than $300,000 from Smarter Balanced.

Montana officials have negotiated a Smarter Balanced membership fee reduction of $375,596, which is about half of its annual membership fees, and they are withholding about $130,000 from Measured Progress until the company delivers everything promised in the contract. They also expect many of the problems to be resolved next year.

We believe it would be unreasonable to expect everything to work out perfectly on the first try. But now that state officials know about these problems, we hope they will put safeguards in place to ensure this doesn’t happen again.

Editorial: https://bit.ly/1JINQQO


The Livingston Enterprise, Dec. 24, on releasing inmate information to the public:

When it comes to the public’s right to know, elected officials sometimes flinch at the idea of releasing records to the media - particularly newspapers, which tend to file the lion’s share of public record requests.

That was initially the case when this newspaper more than two years ago began requesting images of certain inmates being held behind bars at the Park County Detention Center.

This newspaper argued that, when it comes to booking photographs, the public’s right to know outweighs the privacy of someone arrested by law enforcement and held in a taxpayer-funded detention center.

Furthermore, the newspaper argued that not only are booking images handled as public records in other Montana communities from Billings to Butte and beyond, but they hold no evidentiary value.

Park County Attorney Bruce Becker in July filed a motion in district court seeking the court’s authorization to release to this newspaper the booking photograph of an inmate, a registered violent offender.

District Court Judge Jon Oldenburg in late October ruled that the inmate’s booking photograph has no evidentiary value and authorized its release to the newspaper.

Park County Sheriff Scott Hamilton said his office plans to fulfill future requests from The Enterprise for inmate booking photographs. Sheriff Hamilton should be commended for embracing what’s in the public’s best interest. Becker also deserves recognition for seeking to clarify the matter before the court.

Our state lawmakers should now work to clarify the vague language in Montana’s Criminal Justice Information Act, and strengthen the press’ ability to access these records in the future

Editorial: https://bit.ly/1OkiiWK


Bozeman Daily Chronicle, Dec. 29, on the influence of “dark money” groups:

More than one wise person has said, “If you don’t want your mom to know about it, don’t do it.” It’s sage advice and those who follow it will probably stay out of trouble. But it seems there’s an element in 21st century politics that are quite willing to do things they don’t want their moms to know about - and a whole lot of other people as well.

The successful plaintiffs in the now famous Citizens United U.S. Supreme Court case argued that money is speech and they should be allowed to spend it freely to influence elections. As part of the ruling, though, the court said that super PACs, political advocacy groups masquerading as so-called “social welfare” groups, did not have to identify their donors, even though they were heavily involved in electioneering, mostly by running smear ads against targeted candidates.

The ruling opened floodgates of money spent in elections, notably here in Montana on the 2012 state Supreme Court contest on which so-called “dark money” groups spent nearly $1 million. All of this profligate spending on efforts to influence elections begs the question: Why the need for anonymity? If the donors have principled reasons for favoring one justice candidate over the other, shouldn’t they be proud of those reasons?

It seems they’re not.

The state political practices commissioner, as part of an investigation of one these “dark money” groups, subpoenaed the donors list of the Montana Growth Network, and subsequently released the list to the media. The list includes ultra-rich Montana landowner James Cox Kennedy of the Atlanta-based media company Cox Enterprises, who wrote a $100,000 check to the organization.

And why would this landowner care about a state Supreme Court race? Only he knows for sure, but Kennedy has been involved in a relentless legal campaign to overturn the state’s stream access law in an effort to keep fisherman off the stretch of the Ruby River that crosses his land. Might the motive for his political magnanimity be to stack the court with justices who would rule in his favor?

Now that they know, Montana voters can be the judge of that. And it would have been better if they’d known before going into the election booth in 2014.

Transparency in our electoral process is essential to keeping free of corruption. If groups that don’t reveal their funding sources are buying political ads in Montana, voters should be immediately suspicious - very suspicious.

Editorial: https://bit.ly/1kse03A

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