S.D. education secretary says he’s seeking flexibility on Smarter Balanced assessments

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PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — The federal government wants K-12 schools nationwide to continue annual assessments of students’ progress during the current academic year amid the COVID-19 pandemic. A South Dakota official said Friday he’s asked for leniency.

“Assessing student learning is more important than ever. However, current conditions make conducting statewide assessments and evaluating students’ learning a challenge,” state Education Secretary Ben Jones said.

“Current guidance from the U.S. Department of Education indicates that they will continue to require students to test, but we are working with them for approval to have some flexibility around accountability,” he continued.

Earlier this week, a representative from South Dakota’s main educators organization outlined reasons why the group wants the state Board of Education Standards and the state department to consider doing it differently.

Rich Mittelstedt is teaching and learning coordinator for the South Dakota Education Association. He said the group doesn’t have a formal position but has concerns about whether South Dakota should go ahead with Smarter Balanced assessments in the spring.

South Dakota requires annual assessments for students in grades 3 through 8 and grade 11.

Mittelstedt said attendance has been an issue in every school in South Dakota this year because of COVID-19. He said teachers report that some students while out on quarantine don’t log in and then don’t catch up after they have returned to school.

“We have concerns about testing when so many students are falling behind,” he told the board.

Mittelstedt asked whether students could take the assessments at home, where he said they could check other sources of information or ask people for answers. Those aren’t allowed in schools.

He noted some schools are holding virtual classes for the entire academic year. “These are still public schools, so how do we conduct testing in these schools and ensure the same level of quality control is observed as at on-site testing centers?” 

Mittelstedt raised other concerns, such as students with low internet bandwidth where they live and households with multiple students, as well as how schools could be put on the improvement list if they haven’t shown acceptable progress.

He said the federal government can let school districts use other methods such as portfolios, projects and extended performance tasks as substitutes. The deadline for seeking a waiver or an alternative is February 1.

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