PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — The coronavirus pandemic hurt the scholastic performance of South Dakota’s K-12 students. So says the state Department of Education.

Deputy Secretary Mary Stadick Smith gave a report Monday to the Legislature’s Government Operations and Audit Committee.

Even so, she said South Dakota’s education system was in a better place than the nation as a whole because South Dakota returned to face-to-face learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The 2022 ACT average score for South Dakota was 21.5, higher than the six neighboring states, she said. The ACT is one of the assessments that help determine a high school student’s academic readiness for post-secondary education.

South Dakota students also performed better than the U.S. overall on National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) assessments in 4th and 8th grades in math and reading. The committee’s chair, Representative Randy Gross, an Elkton Republican, noted the downward trends nonetheless were “not the type you’d like to see.” Stadick Smith acknowledged they weren’t going in the right direction.

English language and math proficiency rates on South Dakota’s statewide assessments also fell from pre-pandemic 2018-2019 to the 2020-21 school year. Student attendance overall dropped from 92% in 2018-19 to 86% for 2021-22, with 55% of school districts showing the same or improved attendance rates while 45% had poorer attendance. The high absenteeism rate of 30 days or more nearly doubled from 3.4% to 6.3%.

South Dakota school district absenteeism rates
South Dakota school district absenteeism rates | Courtesy Department of Education

Stadick Smith showed a map of school districts that charted their local attendance rate. She said the pandemic made the situation worse in areas that were already having absentee difficulties.

Two other charts showed reading proficiency of students entering fourth grade and math proficiency of students entering ninth grade both declined during the pandemic — reading went down, from 50% to 48%, and math fell from 45% to 38% — while another chart showed the statewide graduation rate dropped slightly from 84% to 82%.

Those numbers also showed big gaps for Native American students. Fourth-grade reading proficiency results were at 20% and 19%; eighth-grade math proficiency 13% and 9%; and graduation rates at 54% and 46%.

The department is using some of South Dakota’s federal COVID-19 funding to run a statewide attendance-awareness campaign, starting a statewide literacy initiative, emphasizing classroom strategies to teach math to the grade-level standards, and offering a new tutoring program with the help of teacher-education students at Northern State University and Black Hills State University, according to Stadick Smith.

Representative Chris Karr, a Sioux Falls Republican, has been the House chairman of the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee that oversees state government’s budgets. He asked what the department plans after the federal COVID aid runs out.

Stadick Smith said the department tried to put the funds toward immediate issues of the most importance. She said, for example, the department doesn’t plan to continue the attendance program into a third year. As for the on-line Dakota Dreams tutoring program, she said its future hasn’t been decided.

“We’ve tried to make good investments with the dollars while they’re available to us,” Stadick Smith said.

Another appropriations member, Senator Reynold Nesiba, a Sioux Falls Democrat, noted that ACT numbers aren’t an apples to apples comparison because South Dakota had 58% participation while Wyoming was 100% and Nebraska 94%. Stadick Smith said there’s conversation about using ACT as a replacement for the grade 11 statewide assessment.

Gross, the GOAC chair, strongly encouraged the House and Senate Education committees to hear the presentation early in the 2023 legislative session that opens January 10.