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Grading SD's education: Math scores slipping

The South Dakota Department of Education released their education report card on Tuesday. (Republic Illustration)

South Dakota school districts' performance was on display Tuesday.

And despite statewide averages increasing or remaining steady in most areas, schools struggled in math college readiness, dropping 10 percentage points from the previous year, according to the South Dakota Department of Education report cards released Tuesday morning.

The report cards measure schools' performance on both district and state levels, and look at data concerning test scores, attendance rates and more, all broken down by demographics in each school.

And many schools in The Daily Republic's 17-county coverage area checked in well below the state's 55.44 percent math college readiness score, most notably in the Gregory and Bridgewater-Emery districts, which recorded 15.38 percent and 25 percent scores, respectively.

Both districts' averages dropped from the year prior, but Bridgewater-Emery Superintendent Jason Bailey said those figures don't necessarily represent a failure.

"Math is difficult to gauge because when you're taking those state tests, it depends on where you're at in classes if you have that information that's on the tests," Bailey said, adding that high school students are split up among various math classes depending on skill level and interest in the subject. "In English, most kids are taking the same number and level of English classes no matter what, so they're on the same level."

With that in mind, Bailey said he isn't immediately concerned about the district's math college readiness score, but added that school officials will thoroughly review the data at a later date and determine if any instructional changes need to be made to improve performance.

Encompassing more students

Despite some areas of concern, Deputy Director of Accountability for the South Dakota Department of Education Laura Scheibe said there's hope for math improvement statewide.

For example, during the 2016-17 school year, proficiency rates on the state test increased by three percentage points in both math and English, she said.

And although college readiness indicators in math declined, it could be because more students are being incorporated into the measurement, Scheibe said. Previously, it was based solely on ACT scores, but this year it also includes Accuplacer and Smarter Balanced scores.

"Using ACT alone was limiting in terms of the information it was providing, since not all students take the ACT," Scheibe said. "This new measure more accurately reflects how our schools are doing in preparing students for that next step, whether that's a four-year college, a technical school or an industry-based certification program."

In Chamberlain, the math college readiness score sat nearly six points above the 55.44 percent state average at 61.02 percent, but Chamberlain Superintendent Deb Johnson said school officials are already working toward raising those numbers.

They have contacted a representative with a program specializing in raising skill levels for certain academic subjects, as well as the state for assistance.

"It's a start, because we, like most others, are concerned about our math scores," Johnson said. "We understand it's a snapshot of what students' skill level is, but students understand this is their work and what they need to do. We hope they're getting the skills they need to do well in whatever they choose to do."

High school completion falters in Lake Andes

While region schools boasted an average 95.19 percent high school completion and the state recorded a 90.23 percent average in the same category, the Andes Central district checked in with one of the lowest completion rates in the state, behind only a handful of other districts.

But with a class of seven students, Andes Central Superintendent Debera Lucas said the 64.29 percent percentage is misleading. Graduating classes average approximately 20 students, Lucas said.

Historically, though, Andes Central has low completion rates, reporting less than 85 percent for the past three school years.

Districts' completion rates are different from graduation rates, encompassing students who obtain their diploma or GED in more than four years, according to the DOE. Graduation rates only include students who graduate high school in four years.

"Definitely, it's a concern," Lucas said. "We certainly want that higher and we need to continue to look at that and provide opportunities that support kids that are more at risk."

According to the DOE, 100 percent of students in the Andes Central district are "economically disadvantaged," meaning they are eligible for the free and reduced lunch program, based on family income. That factor proves to be a challenge in keeping students in school, Lucas said, with many leaving to support families and pursue other options.

To offset the issue, Lucas said school officials are working to expand career and technical education classes in an effort to expose students to various career options at an early age.

And the district is in the middle of a $13 million expansion project to add 55,000 square feet to the elementary school while also remodeling 24,000 square feet. The high school, currently located several blocks from the elementary school, will likely be repurposed or sold as high school classes move into the expansion, and Lucas said she hopes the updated facility will "keep students hooked to finish school."

"I couldn't be prouder of all of our staff members for working diligently at identifying areas we need to provide and providing intervention services for all students who need help," Lucas said. "We'll continue to work on those things and look forward to seeing our test scores reflect that."

And in the Parkston district, where 95.24 percent of students completed school, High School Principal Eric Norden said South Dakota residents can be proud of their local schools, highlighting "top-quality educators" both in Parkston and throughout the state.

Ultimately, Norden said, it's the commitment from students, teachers and parents that determine a child's outcome.

"Everyone's on the same page, is probably the best way to put it," Norden said. "Everyone wants what's best for kids and understand the importance of what they're doing. We're proud of what students are doing while they're here in Parkston and when they leave."