MasteryGuide in Montana

Back in August, education officials in Montana passed a milestone: the U.S. Department of Education granted the state a waiver to eliminate year-end summative testing in schools that participate in a program to pilot an innovative new assessment system. 

The waiver allowed the state to expand the Montana Alternative Student Testing (MAST) program without the fear of “double testing” that often comes with trying out new assessment models. It also paved the way for Montana to become a pioneer in through-year assessment.  

“We are charting a course toward a brighter, more student-centered future,” Superintendent Elsie Arntzen said earlier this year. “By prioritizing assessments that support classroom learning throughout the year, we put Montana students and teachers first, enabling them to realize the greatest potential for each child.”  

Montana’s MAST program is based on New Meridian’s MasteryGuide Assessment, a through-year assessment solution for states that will provide instructionally useful data to classroom teachers throughout the year, as well as a scaled summative score for accountability at the end of the year.

MasteryGuide uses a set of short mini-assessments or “testlets” that are flexibly aligned to classroom instruction so that teachers can adjust lessons to the learning needs of individual students. This system gives the classroom teacher, the person who knows their class best, the ability to choose testing that seamlessly integrates with ongoing lessons. It then uses sophisticated scoring models to aggregate the testlet scores into a final summative score that will meet federal accountability requirements and eliminates the need for an end-of-year test. 

As Arthur VanderVeen, founder and CEO of New Meridian, put it, “This truly is the next generation of assessment.”  

Inside Montana’s Through-Year Program 

In Montana, the program has grown steadily over the last two years, moving through a series of phases that continue as the effort matures. For example:   

  • Community Involvement. The MAST program began with a series of surveys and interviews that allowed students, parents, teachers, administrators and state officials to convey their perspectives on assessment. It’s an important phase, says Kristopher John, vice president of product strategy at New Meridian. “The more we can engage broader communities and engage with diverse sets of stakeholders, the better chance we have at making a positive impact and avoiding negative, unintended consequences,” he said last year. “Those are important things.”
  • Growing Numbers. The pilot began with math and English language arts in grades 5 and 7, with roughly 4,400 students participating across 67 schools in 41 districts during the 2022-2023 school year, according to state records. That will grow almost five-fold in the 2023-2024 school year to include almost 20,700 students in grades 3-8 from 129 schools in 54 districts. The MAST program is also scheduled to fully replace the current end-of-the-year summative assessment statewide beginning with the 2024-2025 school year.
  • ‘Advance Student Academic Achievement.’ Thanks to the one-year federal waiver, end-of-year summative testing will be eliminated in schools where through-year assessment is implemented. In a letter to the Montana Office of Public Instruction, the Department of Education explained: “Because OPI’s through-year assessment is expressly designed to provide educators with more frequent and timely feedback on their instruction, and because the waiver is intended to facilitate the State’s transition to the new assessment within one year, we have determined that this waiver will advance student academic achievement, especially in the context of the urgent work of academic recovery post-pandemic.”
  • Positive Educator Feedback. In a survey delivered earlier this year to Montana educators who were involved with the MAST program, response to the through-year system was positive. “The testlet format where students are focusing on a specific set of skills is much better,” one educator said. “Overall, I think this will be great for the future of standardized testing.”     


“Montana schools will be better served through assessments that reflect true teaching and learning,” Arntzen said last year. “Classroom instruction is the focus, with less teacher time taken on assessment preparation. Montana is leading the way on reimagining the one-size-fits-all student assessments of the past.” 


The Benefits of Through-Year Assessment

MasteryGuide Assessment, which is also being piloted in Louisiana, was designed to give teachers fast feedback on student performance while accommodating stakeholders throughout the entire education system. The short, targeted assessments—administered in a single class period—align to the curriculum to provide a more fair and accurate measure of learning that helps students improve throughout the year. They also provide benefits to teachers, administrators and state education leaders.  


“While high-quality summative tests help ensure schools are serving all students equitably, they also narrow the curriculum, provide minimal instructional value, and disrupt teaching and learning,” VanderVeen said. “Now, we can support classroom learning throughout the year while still producing valid, reliable and comparable results that can be used in school accountability systems.” 

As he put it, “Through-year testing is the future of assessment.”