The Billings Gazette, Oct. 9, on parents staying connected with children's schools ahead of standardized testing:
Twice a year, virtually every student in grades 3-8 in Montana public schools takes the Smarter Balanced test, a standardized exam that fulfills a requirement of federal law.
Standardized testing is used to compare schools' performance and to gauge schools' improvement or decline over time. But such tests have limitations and negative side effects. The test doesn't track individual students' progress, but instead compares this year's third grade to last year's third grade.
Generally, average students from economically disadvantaged families score lower than the average students from middle- and upper-income families. All students are tested in the same way, but student test taking skills vary. Teachers also must spend class time preparing students to take the standardized tests, which are all taken on computers. Students who use computers a lot may be more comfortable and proficient at taking these tests.
It's easy to fixate on standardized test scores, but citizens must not lose sight of the more important measures of academic progress: How individual students are learning week by week, year by year.
Billings Public Schools uses a test called the NWEA to track each student's progress in math and reading skills three times per year. These scores are available to parents and guardians so they can work with teachers and counselors to help each student achieve his or her full potential.
The first round of NWEA testing this fall showed "extraordinary" progress across the district, according to Superintendent Greg Upham. "We saw some of our largest gains in our title schools," which have a high proportion of students from low-income families. He added that the testing also showed literacy issues remain.
The NWEA shows parents how their child is performing compared to other children in their grade across the country. Parents need to know whether their children are working at grade level or not.
This Thursday or Friday all six Billings public middle schools are holding parent teacher conferences. If you have a student in grade 6, 7 or 8, be sure to check with the school to find out when parents can meet with teachers.
All Billings parents can access their student's grades and attendance records online through the Power School Parent Portal. Yet Upham says only about 50% of parents are active on the website.
"We want 100%," Upham said. "Contact your school and they'll get you set up."
Upham, who was a teacher and principal before becoming a superintendent, used to tell parents at freshmen orientation "know who your student's teachers are, know the class schedule, is there a big project coming up and when is it due." That active parental involvement is important throughout the school years, even though high school students are trying to push away, Upham said.
With updated information from teachers, parents can more effectively participate in their children's education. Improvement and good grades should be commended and encouraged. Poor grades and missing assignments are best addressed sooner than later.
Gazette readers have seen the reports on Smarter Balanced scores. It's time for parents to see their student's NWEA results and their class grades through Power School. Don't wait till a problem comes up; meet your students' teachers and be the vital member of the education team that all parents should be.
Parents are their children's first teachers; all their other teachers depend on parental support to do their very best work with your children.
The Bozeman Daily Chronicle, Oct. 8, on National Guard tuition waiver approvals:
The state University System Board of Regents is applauded for approving a tuition waiver for members of the National Guard at the regent's September meeting. It's a benefit guard members certainly deserve.
The regents approved the waiver unanimously, noting during discussion of the proposal that the U-system already offers waivers to honorably discharged regular military veterans and Native Americans. It was also pointed out that — without the waiver — Montana schools may be losing Guard members to the neighboring states of Wyoming, North Dakota and Utah, which already offer the waivers.
The competition factor may be real, but the stronger argument for the waiver is simply that it's the right thing to do.
As we have seen in recent years, Guard members can be deployed in war zones. Guard units have been called up with little notice and ordered to serve long stints in Afghanistan and Iraq combat zones alongside regular military units. That's a big sacrifice asked of these part-time soldiers and it exposes them to the same risks active duty soldiers face.
Many citizens have in good conscience opposed military policy decisions made by our elected leaders concerning conflicts in the Middle East. But despite those objections, we should all support extending benefits to any members of the military who have been asked to fight in those conflicts.
And that includes members of the National Guard. The risks and sacrifices they've faced deserve consideration when they seek higher education at state campuses.
Also to be considered are the duties Guardsmen and women are asked to perform during peacetime. Most of the time members of the Guard are obligated to undergo training one weekend a month and two weeks a year. But whenever natural disaster strikes — including floods, wildfires and earthquakes — Guard units are called up to shoulder much of the hard duty it takes to recover from those disasters. And we certainly owe them something for that.
The cost of the waivers will not be so great that the U-system can't absorb them. The National Guard waiver was long overdue and the right thing to do.
The Daily Inter Lake, Oct. 6, on park maintenance:
Only accessible by boat, Wild Horse Island State Park has long been considered a hidden jewel of Flathead Lake.
Visitors who put in the effort to make the short jaunt to the island that sits just off the west shore of the lake will find an idyllic setting that, in many ways, offers a reminder of the "way it used to be" in the West. Wild horses roam free alongside bighorn sheep, secluded beaches are hidden in the coves and trails through fields of wildflowers meander across the primitive island.
Recently, however, state park managers have been faced with an uninvited and unwanted species that could change the dynamic of this special ecosystem — cheatgrass. This invasive plant has emerged in groves in recent years across the island and is threatening populations of native plants that sustain the animals on the island that don't eat cheatgrass.
Park managers were unsure how exactly to tackle this issue. Finding solutions to problems such as these often require bringing in outside specialists that come with steep price tags that can strain already-tight state park budgets.
Luckily, partners have stepped up to fill in the funding gaps. The Wild Cheatgrass Foundation and the Wild Sheep Foundation partnered with the state park to help fund research addressing the cheatgrass outbreak.
Other partners have emerged to help with other important projects on the island, as well. The Montana Conservation Corps is helping to build a new, more sustainable trail. Volunteers will also help replace signage that has been gnawed away by horses, and with some necessary tree removal.
To help fund these undertakings, the Montana State Parks Foundation recently launched the Flathead Lake Action Fund. The account already holds about $120,000, with the majority coming from the Wild Sheep Foundation. Other contributors include Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, the Mule Deer Foundation, and the Montana Recreation Trails Program.
The truth is, our state and national parks are often handed insufficient maintenance budgets. We applaud the foresight from Wild Horse Island stewards to create the Flathead Lake Action Fund, and are encouraged to see yet another example of a private-public collaboration benefiting the public.
Unfortunately state decision-makers have yet to address park maintenance with the same gusto they put into encouraging millions of tourists to visit Montana's natural treasures each summer. And until they do, these partnerships will be key to keeping the maintenance backlog from stacking up.