Good grief—doesn’t the Noem Administration talk to anyone anymore?
Representative Tony Venhuizen (R-13/Sioux Falls) went to House Education Friday to promote his House Bill 1002, a proposal to boot the “Smarter Balanced” standardized tests for high school juniors and instead pay for every junior to take the ACT. Venhuizen told the committee (SDPB audio here) that HB 1002 would benefit students by getting rid of a standardized test in which the students have zero stake and saving them money on their first swing at the ACT. HB 1002 might also help schools by evaluating their effectiveness with a test that large portion of high school students want to do well on so they can get into college and win scholarships. Representative Venhuizen said the John Benders who don’t care about college (Venhuizen didn’t invoke The Breakfast Club, but you get the idea) aren’t hurt by his bill—they still have to take one boring test—and if they change their minds and follow Claire to college, well, hey! the state just put the ACT under their belt for free. Venhuizen vaguely asserted would be “not a great difference” in cost to the state.
Venhuizen responded to opposition he’s heard from some school superintendents who say correctly that making all students take the ACT will bring down the average scores the schools’ students currently post. “That’s really the tail wagging the dog,” said Rep. Venhuizen. “We shouldn’t be setting up our testing regime to try to get the highest scores we can. We should be getting the best picture of what’s going on. And we just have to be very up front with people that if we make this change, if we go from testing 58% of the kids to 100% of the kids, those really aren’t comparable scores. We can’t say, ‘Oh gosh, the scores went down, the schools must really be doing something wrong.’ No, we’re just testing more people.”
Venhuizen said House Bill 1002 had support from the Sioux Falls and Rapid City school districts and said anecdotally that he had received some support from students and parents.
Then Secretary of Education Joseph Graves stepped up during proponent time to steal Venhuizen’s thunder. Secretary Graves said many educators have criticized the grade 11 Smarter Balanced tests for years on the same grounds Venhuizen cited in his testimony: we’re evaluating schools on student performance on a test in which the students have no stake. Graves said educator opposition to the grade 11 test is “not a consensus… but… a clear majority.” Secretary Graves agreed that the ACT would be the best replacement for SB, as more students would take it seriously. Graves also said it would be a “plus” for schools to reduce the amount of testing (!!!).
But then Graves said the Department of Education “has the ability and the authority to make this change, and we’ve been working on plans to make that happen.” Two more junior classes, this year’s and next’s, will be subjected to the meaningless SB, but come Academic Year 2025–2026, SB is gone from grade 11, and juniors will all take the ACT. Graves said letting his department make this change on its own, without a statutory change, will allow the department “retain its ability to be flexible on certain South Dakota students.”
That last line is horsehockey: whatever “flexibility” the department and the schools may have in administering the SB to students is not in the statute HB 1002 amends; DSCL 13-5-55 currently says “Every public school district shall annually administer the same assessment to all students… in grade eleven”—n exceptions. HB 1002 actually adds flexibility: Section 2 of Venhuizen’s bill authorizes school superintendents (you know, the local authorities closest to the students, not Graves and the educrats in Pierre) to exempt students from taking the ACT based on individual education program plans or “other special circumstances”. Wow—if we want flexibility in testing, HB 1002 sounds a lot more flexible than the status quo!
But back to the point: Secretary Graves took up proponent time to essentially oppose the bill, to say to the committee, You bet, ACT of SB is great, but we’ll do it ourselves, so don’t pass this bill requiring us to do it a year sooner than we planned.
Returning to actual proponent testimony, the Sioux Falls school district sent lobbyist Samuel J. Nelson to back HB 1002. Sandra Waltman testified to the South Dakota Education Association’s support for HB 1002, adding that removing the financial barrier to taking the ACT will help some families.
In undisguised opponent testimony, Debbie Pease of radical right-wing SD Family Voice Action (the rebranded Family Heritage Alliance) said HB 1002 would take away parents’ rights. Playing words games, Pease said the current statute says schools must “administer” tests but does not require that students “take” a test. Thus, said Pease, HB 1002 takes away parents’ opt-out authority… an authority that is not spelled out in the statutes addressed in HB 1002 and appears not to exist anywhere else in South Dakota law. It would thus appear that if Pease and Family Voice Action are serious about protecting their faith, family, and freedom from standardized testing, they need to move to Minnesota, Colorado, or California, which are among the minority of states explicitly allowing parents to opt kids out of tests.
Pease also made the surprising claim that her research shows that only 27 post-secondary schools in the U.S. require the ACT. Indeed, lots of colleges have gone test-optional since coronavirus hit. But U.S. News and World Report lists several big schools as requiring students to submit ACT or SAT scores, like MIT, Georgetown, Florida State, University of South Florida, West Point, the Naval Academy, and the Air Force Academy. She also said no South Dakota schools require the ACT, and indeed, home-schoolers and non-high-school grads have alternate paths to admission at SDSU.
Finally, Pease offered the simpler and more honest conservative argument: the Department of Education can and already plans to swap the SB for the ACT, so there is no need for House Bill 1002. If the status quo is solving, there’s no need for a new plan.
Invited back to the mic, Representative Venhuizen acknowledged FVA’s concern about parental rights, but he noted that federal law requires that 95% of students take whatever standardized test the states and schools require for their accountability. Venhuizen, a former member of the Board of Regents, also noted that the ACT “is the preferred and by far the most common standardized test for many colleges, including the state universities in South Dakota” and is also important for scholarship applications.
Venhuizen did agree with Pease’s honest conservative point on the fact that ACT for all is already in the chute. Venhuizen expressed what seemed to be surprise at learning it is in the chute—of Graves’s testimony to that effect, Venhuizen said, “I don’t believe he’s made that commitment publicly until today”—but he said that he doesn’t need to get bills passed just for the sake of passage; he just wants to get policy done. He invited House Education to table his bill, and House Education unanimously obliged, putting HB 1002 to rest.
I’m surprised that Representative Venhuizen was surprised. Before ascending to elected office, Venhuizen provided the only real local brain power in the first four years of the Noem Administration, serving as her first-Session senior policy advisor and one of Noem’s numerous chiefs of staff. One would think that, as he formulated and filed a bill affecting the Department of Education, someone in his old office on the Second Floor would have noticed and said, “Oh, our man Tony is doing something we’ve already got in the chute! We should let him know.”
But while Venhuizen’s old friends in the Department of Education appear to have knocked the legs out from under the only bill Venhuizen has filed so far this Session, House Bill 1002 did some good before its Week One demise. It put the Department of Education on record as supporting the switch from Smarter Balanced to the ACT… and it alerted schools that this change is coming (just how long was Graves going to wait to give superintendents, teachers, and this year’s ninth graders time to prepare for this notable change in their testing plans?).