PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — State Education Secretary Ben Jones gave some lawmakers a first look Tuesday at the new goals and paths he plans for his department in working with South Dakota’s public K-12 school districts.

Federal law still requires states to assess students — commonly known as standardized tests — in grades three through eight and once in high school, Jones told the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Appropriations. But he wants the department to become more than a compliance agency and to be in contact more frequently with the 149 districts than just when districts face state re-accreditation every five years.

Governor Kristi Noem, a Republican, initially appointed the Dakota State University dean as interim secretary. In May he accepted a permanent role in her Cabinet. “When she hired me, she wanted schools to be at their peak performance,” Jones said.

Representative Taffy Howard, a Rapid City Republican, said some teachers still used methods from the 2010-era Common Core standards that were disliked and philosophically rejected by many South Dakota lawmakers.

Jones replied that faculty from South Dakota universities and K-12 schools’ staff rewrote standards in 2018. He said the next round of assessments would mark the first time the new ones are used.

“Methods are a local decision. The curriculum is a local decision,” Jones told her. 

Howard in turn said some of the results that Jones presented, such as what’s known as a national assessment for fourth grade reading, looked good in isolation but actually hadn’t improved in 16 years.

“Compared to other countries, the U.S. is doing horrendous,” Howard said. “Eighth grade reading, we’ve actually gone backward the last 16 years.” 

Jones agreed. “The scores are stuck. They’ve been stuck for a while,” he said, adding “There’s no one person who’s in charge of this.”

Jones said he saw the wisdom in the decision by Congress requiring students take assessments, even though states adopt their own standards. 

Senator Reynold Nesiba, a Sioux Falls Democrat, said he’s found that citizens generally expected all students would be proficient. He asked Jones it that was possible.

“What the test should do,” Jones answered, “is set a high standard, and this test does that.” Jones said teachers, other school leaders and parents all have roles in shaping students. 

Representative Doug Post, a Volga Republican, said parents’ attitudes can tie into whether students pay attention in classes. Post said the assessment results from within the group of students who qualified for free and reduced-price lunches showed many students were proficient. 

Jones said he wants the department to put on its website “bright spots” of what’s been proven to work in local districts. He said Louisiana does it. There are two big groups of students whose assessment scores are below expectations, according to Jones.

He described one as “gap” students whose performances generally lagged in comparison to similar students. He said there also are unique issues in Native American education.   

“The test tells us what needs attention,” Jones said.