PIERRE, S.D. (AP) - South Dakota's black students continue to lag behind white students on a key achievement test, but the gap has narrowed in recent years, according to state Education Department records.
While scores increased across the board from 2003 to 2008 on the test South Dakota uses to measure compliance with the No Child Left Behind federal school improvement law, black students made bigger gains than white students in the test given in grades 3-8 and grade 11.
In 2003, 36 percent of the African-American students were proficient or advanced in math, compared with 64 percent of white students, a difference of 28 percentage points. The gap had closed to 23 points by 2008, when 58 percent of black students and 81 percent of white students scored proficient or advanced.
In reading, 52 percent of black students were proficient or advanced in 2003, 22 percentage points behind white students. Black students were only 13 points behind by 2008, when 73 percent of them scored proficient or advanced in reading.
"We're still not where we want to be, but it's a dramatic increase," said state Education Secretary Tom Oster.
Oster and the Education Department's statistical experts acknowledge that with such a small number of black students in South Dakota, any change tends to be amplified, but the scores are moving in the right direction.
Educators say the disparity between white and minority students is due in large part that more black children live in poverty, a condition linked to other problems such as low birth weight, less reading at home and less involvement by parents.
Oster said the Dakota State Test of Educational Progress provides information that the state, schools and teachers can use to improve education. For example, if most third graders are unable to answer math questions on decimals, schools can focus on decimals more then next year, he said.
"That's one of the blessin gs of No Child Left Behind. We have this data and each local school district has it," Oster said.
South Dakota's disparity was not reported in a recent U.S. Education Department study, which used a different test, because the state has a small population of black students.
But the Dakota STEP tests each year reports results for minority groups. Under No Child Left Behind, states and schools must meet goals for all students and for different groups of students.
Out of South Dakota's 121,000 students in elementary and secondary schools last year, 2.3 percent, or 2,820, were black. Native American students are the largest minority, at nearly 12 percent, and the state has special programs aimed at boosting Native American academic achievement.
The Sioux Falls School District, which has one of the largest populations of black students in South Dakota, saw the disparity between black and white students shrink at a level comparable to the statewide average fr om 2003 to 2008.
Fred Aderhold, assistant superintendent for instruction and human resources, said Sioux Falls schools use a number of programs to improve the performance of students at lower achievement levels to narrow the gap between low- and high-achieving groups, not just those from minority groups.
School principals meet regularly with teachers to determine what help students need, Aderhold said. There's after-school tutoring, special reading programs, some elementary schools run an extra 30 minutes a day to focus on vocabulary and other skills, and immigrants from other nations get special immersion classes, he said.
Class sizes also have been reduced, and teachers are trained in helping kids improve skills in solving problems, thinking creatively and being analytical, Aderhold said.
"I think for us it boils down to really looking at each individual child and providing the kind of programming that's going to allow them to excel in their learning ," Aderhold said.