Between the Lines: Local students’ achievements significant

There is often a common thread to news stories about issues relating to education in South Dakota.

There�s usually not that much good news to report. There�s usually updated statistics that compare, say, teacher salaries across the nation. South Dakota is usually at the bottom.

This last year, especially, has been tough. State aid to education funding, which had for years been increased no more than the rate of inflation, was frozen two years ago.

This last year, for the budget year beginning last July, school funding in South Dakota was cut by approximately 7 percent. At one time, it looked like it was going to be trimmed by 10 percent.

It means that the funding burden for education is following a trend where more and more pressure is placed on the residents of local school districts, rather than the state, to help schools make ends meet.

This has been accomplished in Vermillion with a combination of cutting programs to trim the school district�s budgets, and the willingness of local citizens to opt out of the state property tax freeze so that additional local funding may be allocated to the district to make up for the ever-decreasing flow of revenue from Pierre.

Despite the funding turmoil, there is indeed good education-related news to report in Vermillion.

Vermillion High School students had the 10th highest ACT score in the state with a composite of 23.4. The composite was also the highest of all Class �A� public schools. VHS students scored above the state average in all categories: Math, Science, Reading, and English. A total of 87 percent of VHS students took the test opposed to the 67 percent statewide.

This is significant. Especially with the challenging financial issues South Dakota schools must live with year after year.

And, especially with some rather disturbing national trends that came to light in the last week or so.

A fresh report issued on the national results of another popular standardized test � the SAT � show scores in reading, writing and math are down across the nation compared with those of last year, and stagnant or declining for several years. Critical reading scores are the lowest in 40 years.

One may make an apples and oranges argument as we shift the topic, momentarily, from ACT scores to SAT scores. I�ve been unable to find any recent reports on how Vermillion or South Dakota students compare to their peers in other states when it comes to the SAT. Judging from older data that I�ve been able to find, however, our SAT scores have traditionally been strong.

Vermillion�s ACT ranking is meaningful because we�ve just completed a decade of standardized-test-based school reform under the No Child Left Behind law that educators warned was narrowing curriculum and turning too many classrooms into test prep factories rather than places of real learning. Meanwhile, issues facing the rising number of English language learners and children living in poverty have been given short policy shrift.

The Washington Post reports that according to the College Board, which owns the SAT and just released scores for graduating seniors in 2011, average scores were down three points in critical reading compared with those of the year before.

The picture looks even worse if you look back several years: Since 2006, the year after the SAT added a writing section to the verbal and math parts of the college entrance exam, scores for all test takers are down six points for reading, four for math and eight for writing.

From 2002 to 2003, for example, the number of SAT takers nationally grew by 78,500, which was a 5?percent increase, much larger than the 3 percent from 2010 to 2011). Yet average test scores � for verbal and math, because that was before writing was added to the SAT in 2005 � increased by six points, according to Bob Schaeffer, public education director of FairTest.

Last May, the National Research Council conducted an analysis of standardized test-based school reform in the No Child Left Behind era.

The report concluded that incentive programs for schools, teachers and students aimed at raising standardized test scores are largely unproductive in generating increased student achievement.

In other words, the evidence shows that punitive test-driven reforms won�t improve academic achievement. And South Dakota has recognized that. Earlier this year, the state Department of Education announced that South Dakota schools will not face higher proficiency targets for this year's math and reading tests � in defiance of the No Child Left Behind Act.

It was noted that the law was forcing schools everywhere to strive toward an increasingly unattainable proficiency goal. South Dakota has joined a majority of states across the nation and has begun working on new accountability systems to replace adequate yearly progress standards.

Despite financial challenges and federal laws that try to force local school districts to meet impossible standards, Vermillion students have achieved quite well.

Our hope is that South Dakota may someday reward the Vermillion School District and other districts who prove themselves in times of adversity by increasing the amount of state aid funding they receive.

It would be a fitting way for state leaders to truly show they are committed to maintaining and improving our state�s excellent public education system.

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