- Associated Press - Monday, September 21, 2015

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) - South Dakota students performed better than expected on new, more rigorous assessment tests, although less than half of them reached levels considered proficient, state education officials said Monday.

The Smarter Balance tests are designed to evaluate whether students are on track to be college ready, said Melody Schopp, secretary of the state Department of Education. Scores from tests given in the spring show the percentage of South Dakota students in grades 3-8 and 11 at or above Level 3 “proficient” was 49.5 percent in English language arts and 41.3 percent in math.

Schopp said the results are in line with other states using the Smarter Balance tests, which include Idaho, Missouri, Washington, Oregon, West Virginia, Delaware and California.

“This assessment was definitely more rigorous and it was more meaningful, because it measured things we’ve never measured before,” she said. “Students were asked to demonstrate real-world skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, writing and citing specific evidence as they went through the assessment.”

Mary McCorkle, president of the union representing teachers in the state, said the results demonstrate the work going on in classrooms to prepare students with higher-level thinking skills.

“The fact that our students did better than predicted in the first year is a positive,” said McCorkle, president of the South Dakota Education Association. “We’re pleased with that.”

Department officials presented the statewide results to the Board of Education during its Monday meeting in Watertown. The state’s full 2015 Report Card is scheduled to be released Tuesday.

Abby Javurek-Humig, director of the state Department of Education’s division of assessment and accountability, said the full report will identify the top performing school districts and those in need of additional support. It also will look at student attendance, as studies show those who miss more than 6 percent of classes face significant learnings gaps, she said.

Schopp said the majority of South Dakota schools fall into a mid-range for performance, but there are outliers on both ends. She said officials over the next year will look at factors impacting how students performed in some of those lower-scoring schools.

The Smarter Balance assessments replace the previously used Dakota STEP tests, and the first-year scores will provide a new baseline for student achievement, Schopp said, adding that she expects scores to rise in coming years. The 11th grade tests provide an added benefit of assessing whether high school students are ready to attend post-secondary schools or are in need of remedial coursework to help them catch up.

South Dakota in August received a one-year waiver renewal from provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, though the U.S. Department of Education put the state on high-risk status because of “serious problems with its guidelines for teacher and principal evaluation and support systems.”

Schopp said the new test results will not be used to evaluate individual teachers.

McCorkle said that the South Dakota Commission on Teaching and Learning partnership is continuing discussion on that federal status, but she believes the state has met the U.S. Department of Education’s guidelines. She said South Dakota’s teacher effectiveness system is good for schools and students and good for building professional practice.

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Follow Dirk Lammers on Twitter at https://twitter.com/ddlammers

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