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Thursday, December 10, 2009

US News Ratings: Small Schools Rate Best in South Dakota

Mr. Powers draws our attention to U.S. News and World Report's latest ratings of the best high schools in America. Mr. Powers notes with duly raised eyebrow that none of South Dakota's larger schools make the list. The highest rated South Dakota high school was mighty Miler Area HS, which earned a "silver" rating. 12 South Dakota high schools, all Class A and B, earned "bronze"; none earned the top "gold" rating.

The ratings appear to give Powers's man Munsterman some campaign fodder to continue to advocate for supporting small schools and repealing the consolidation effort that the Rounds-Daugaard administration has pushed. I'd certainly agree on that front: small schools have some significant advantages in terms of teacher-student contact, community, and responsibility that bigger schools have a hard time replicating.

The numbers also suggest that South Dakota's K-12 system is poor to middling compared to the rest of the country. We ranked 42nd nationwide for the percentage of schools earning silver or gold ratings; add bronze to the percentage, and we rank 29th. North Dakota had no silver schools, but they beat us on percentage of bronze schools.

But before I get too excited about these numbers, we should not that the survey methodology does not appear terribly comprehensive. U.S. News considered only 20 out of 136 South Dakota high schools for full analysis. I count 158 high schools in South Dakota. U.S. News chose that small fraction of schools for full analysis based on state standards, so comparing our results to North Dakota's or Minnesota's gets pretty appley-orangey. To determine medalists, U.S. News measured college-readiness by scores on Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate tests. Those are great tests, and schools that give their kids the opportunity to take them and the training to excel on them deserve to be commended. But given the small number of kids who take those tests in small South Dakota schools, one or two kids crazy for calculus or the transfer of just one teacher who happens to be AP-Lit certified could produce a huge shift in such AP/IB-based ratings.

If I want to make the argument that small schools do just as good a job as the big schools, I prefer to broaden the picture to ACT scores, which measures the college-readiness of a bigger sample of students. On the latest data available on the South Dakota Department of Education website (and check this: the list I'm downloading this morning look as if it missed a few schools), silver school Miller ties for 34th statewide on 2007-2008 ACT composite score, tied with Elk-Point Jefferson, Milbank, Parkston, and Winner. Bronze school Arlington ranks 1st statewide; bronze school Avon ranks 112th, tying with Chamberlain, Howard, and Hurley. Brookings is the best big school on ACT scores, ranking 7th statewide, followed by Brandon (tied with Chester at 16th), Pierre (tied with Grant-Deuel, Tripp-Delmont, Webster, and Willow Lake at 18th), Sioux Falls (23rd), and Spearfish and Yankton (tied with Bon Homme at 24th).

(Nationally, if I'm counting correctly, South Dakota tied for 16th in composite ACT scores in 2008. We beat North Dakota, but not those income-tax-lovin' commies in Minnesota. Rats!)

I'd like to think that if we expanded AP offerings around the state, we'd see even more South Dakota schools making that U.S. News roster. But with the data we have, we can at least see that small schools can provide competitive educational opportunities.


  1. The one thing about the Miller school that has always impressed me is the band. They have had the same band teacher for over 20 years and it shows. During games the band really blows the roof off the Miller Armory and the kids really appear to be having a fun time. It looks and sounds like something that would be fun to be a part of.

  2. A solid arts program makes for a broader education. Plus, band teaches kids to walk and make music and the same time! That's got to be good for the brain.

  3. I appreciate that the methodology takes into consideration socio-economic factors affecting student scores on standardized tests, but I can’t help but believe they are still placing too much emphasis on how well college bound students perform on tests.

    I wonder if they could improve the ranking by measuring student creativity (pretty important if we are in a creative economy) and preparedness for the local economy (pretty important if want to stimulate our local economy).

    I’m not sure how we would generate those measures, but I think should factor into any school ranking system.


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