Investigation gives Elsie Arntzen's claims an 'F' — for 'False' 

No one at the state's Office of Public Instruction falsified high school juniors' ACT scores or sought to misrepresent the scores to the federal government last year, contrary to what new Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen alleged at a January press conference where she lambasted her Democratic predecessor, an independent review has found.

Arntzen commissioned the review just weeks after taking the helm at the state's K-12 education agency in response to a staff "whistleblower" who raised concerns about data recently reported to the U.S. Department of Education under former OPI chief Denise Juneau. Announcing the investigation, Arntzen, the first Republican elected to lead the OPI in 29 years, accused Juneau's administration of misrepresenting student scores, alleging an "abuse of state and federal dollars" that could jeopardize school funding.

The investigation, conducted by Helena consultant Jim Kerins at a cost of $4,200, concluded March 20. There was no press conference to highlight its findings.

Arntzen had taken issue with how OPI employees, under the guidance of Juneau's appointed staff, decided to code ACT scores in an annual federal report used to hold schools accountable for student performance. Federal law requires high school students in either their sophomore or junior year to take a standardized test that measures their proficiency in core subjects such as English and math. Montana schools, at Juneau's direction, began using the ACT college-entrance exam for this purpose last spring, but the OPI had yet to establish its definitions for proficiency by the time the federal report was due in December. Instead, the whistleblower said, staffers were instructed to report that all students had scored "proficient" on the test. Arntzen described that action as "reckless."

What Arntzen called "reckless," Juneau described as an innocuous workaround. Because state officials didn't think the reporting system would allow them to leave the data fields blank, she said at the time, OPI staffers decided to record "proficient" as a temporary placeholder.

Kerins' 36-page report, released publicly March 24, found that OPI employees under Juneau made a "good faith effort" to provide the appropriate data, and apprised federal officials of the issues before submitting. Moreover, as Kerins' investigation was concluding, an OPI staffer discovered that the students were never actually coded as "proficient" in the first place, as the whistleblower had said. In fact, the data fields had been left blank.

click to enlarge In one of her first acts as state superintendent, Elsie Arntzen accused her predecessor of misrepresenting test data to the federal government. - PHOTO COURTESY OFFICE OF PUBLIC INSTRUCTION
  • photo courtesy Office of Public Instruction
  • In one of her first acts as state superintendent, Elsie Arntzen accused her predecessor of misrepresenting test data to the federal government.

Arntzen did not address this finding in her written statement released in conjunction with the report last Friday. Asked if she stands by her earlier statements, OPI media assistant Dylan Klapmeier tells the Indy the superintendent "stands by the report," and that information available at the time of Arntzen's earlier statement "indicated that false proficiency data had been submitted."

Presented with a copy of the report, Juneau fired back, saying it "proves Elsie is more interested in political games than doing her job."

Arntzen had zeroed in on questions about data submission as a flashpoint in a larger dispute over her predecessor's decision to use the ACT as the state exam for high school juniors.

Juneau announced the switch in December 2015 on the heels of a botched rollout of the Smarter Balanced, or SBAC, exams, and just after she had announced her campaign for Congress. The move to replace Smarter Balanced with the ACT, already offered free through a federal grant, was popular with schools because the test was familiar to students and reduced testing time for most juniors. However, it had the potential to create federal compliance issues, because the ACT is designed to measure college readiness, rather than student achievement with respect to Common Core standards.

In a presentation to the Board of Public Education last week, members of Arntzen's leadership team said that their predecessors had skipped the administrative legwork needed to win federal approval to use the ACT in this way—specifically, that OPI hadn't undergone a "peer review" process that Interim Deputy Superintendent Tim Tharp said should have been conducted last year. Tharp was also uncertain whether the ACT could be viable as the state exam for juniors in the future.

"We are very uncomfortable with ... OPI calling this our statewide assessment," Tharp told the board. "And if we were strictly following the law and the direction from the federal government, we would be coming to you with a recommendation that we do something else."

Members of Juneau's leadership team, including Tharp's predecessor Dennis Parman and former Chief of Staff Madalyn Quinlan, say that legwork was scheduled to take place this year, and that the OPI didn't expect the delay would endanger the state's standing in the eyes of the federal government—which, at least so far, it hasn't. Quinlan says the feds have granted the state an extension to make its case for the ACT as an appropriate measure of student performance and related analyses in 2017. Similarly, a routine January letter to state assessment directors from the U.S. Department of Education notes that 12 states that introduced new exams last year will be expected to undergo the compliance review in either June or August of this year.

Klapmeier says OPI will submit the state's material in August.

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