The state Department of Education wants to let South Dakota schools be more flexible on when they administer standardized tests.
The state Senate agreed with the concept Thursday, approving the legislation 34-0. It now goes to the state House of Representatives for a second hearing.
But along the way Senate Bill 24 turned into a vehicle for lawmakers to argue a broader point: Whether the state Board of Education Standards should continue to have rule-making authority over those assessments.
The amendment to stop delegating that power came from Senator Ryan Maher and passed on a voice vote Thursday afternoon.
“Far too often we give our authority away to the department,” the Republican from Isabel said.
Maher wants to make the department return to the Legislature to ask for any future changes on assessments. He said legislators are supposed to be doing their work rather than relinquishing their authority.
Senator Jim Bolin argued against Maher’s amendment. The Republican from Canton said there are times when state departments need rule-making authority.
Bolin noted the amendment wasn’t discussed at the Senate Education Committee hearing for Senate Bill 24 earlier in the week. He suggested the department be allowed time to “thoroughly” vet it.
Senator Jeff Monroe urged support of the amendment. The Republican from Pierre said legislators give “broad sweeping powers.”
“I think it’s real good,” Monroe said.
Senator Alan Solano urged rejection of the Maher amendment.
The Republican from Rapid City chairs the Senate Education Committee. He also served on the Legislature’s Rules Review Committee that has final authority whether an agency or board has followed the proper process.
Solano said the rules review panel has become more stringent in its treatment. “There’s real danger,” he warned about striking rules authority without knowing the potential effects.
Solano agreed with Maher’s broader point that the Legislature needs to consider how much power it has surrendered to the executive branch’s departments, boards and commissions.
Senate Democratic leader Troy Heinert, of Mission, agreed with Monroe about the need for the Legislature to re-assert itself.
“As I read this amendment, I think this accomplishes exactly what we’ve been talking about,” Heinert said.
Bolin said the legislation came from the department. State law currently requires assessments in grades three through eight and grade 11.
The legislation would be more specific by requiring assessments of math and English language arts in grades three through eight and one time in high school.
Science knowledge would be assessed one time in grades three through five, once in grades six through eight and once in high school.
Bolin said the change would allow schools to examine students’ mastery when courses were completed, rather than only in the spring of their junior years.
He suggested most students would be gauged on algebra in grade nine, biology in grade 10 and English in grade 11.
“What we have here is a better process,” Bolin said.
Bolin said he hasn’t been a fan of the assessments that are required by federal law but he said the law must be followed. “I am a believer in the supremacy clause of the (U.S.) constitution,” he said.
He noted the changes sought by the department resulted from a stakeholders process. He said assessments have been controversial for more than a decade since Congress passed the original No Child Left Behind law.
After Maher’s amendment passed, no one made further comments on the bill.