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District 43 Republican candidates create new campaign brochure, removing local ACT, cost-per-student data

Superintendent Terry Brenner said the initial brochure gave “a false narrative” about the ACT scores achieved by Grand Forks students who generally take the exam in their junior year of high school.

Mark Sanford Center Grand Forks schools logo sign tower.jpg
The Mark Sanford Education Center, headquarters of Grand Forks Public Schools. (Grand Forks Herald photo)
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GRAND FORKS – Grand Forks District 43 Republican candidates for the state House and Senate have revised and reprinted their campaign flyer, eliminating a chart that school district leaders say conveyed misleading information about local high school ACT scores.

The candidates are Jeff Barta for Senate, and Ethan Harsell and Eric Murphy for the House.

Grand Forks school leaders were concerned about the chart showing local ACT composite scores dipping to under 17 in 2020. The chart also showed cost-per-student, compared to ACT scores, from 2009 to 2020. Rumors about the figures also circulated on social media, said Superintendent Terry Brenner.

Brenner said the initial brochure gave “a false narrative” about the ACT scores achieved by Grand Forks students, who generally take the exam in their junior year of high school.

According to the state Department of Public Instruction, the Grand Forks ACT composite score – an average of all students taking all test components – for the 2019-20 school year was 20.33, but a line chart in the brochure, under the heading “K-12: Where the Foundation is Laid,” showed it to be under 17 in 2020.

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The 20.33 figure reflects the scores of Grand Forks Central and Red River high schools, but does not include Grand Forks Community High School, an alternative school with an enrollment of just under 100. Community was not included due to its smaller sample size, according to school district officials.

In the new flyer, that chart has been replaced with an image that shows the layout of the new vocational educational center, Murphy said. The Career Impact Academy is scheduled to be built near the intersection of Gateway Drive and North 42nd Street.

‘Data have been changed’

Murphy said the initial chart reflected North Dakota Insight website data he examined Aug. 25. More recently, after speaking with a DPI employee, he learned that “those data have been changed,” he said. “Apparently students with an IEP (individual education plan) scores were incorrectly put into the system. While our data and figures accurately represented the data entered, either the data was reported incorrectly or (was) incorrectly entered by DPI.”

Murphy said in an email to the Herald in September that the initial chart reflected the average ACT scores for the city’s three high schools, based on data he examined on DPI website on Aug. 25.

But, he said at the time, “the original link does not work. I believe the non-average is Red River around 14, Community, around 17, and Central around 19.5, if I remember correctly. … (A)nd the other data are historic data that was available to the public on the same page.”

Murphy said, “What was in the brochure reflects what was reported by GFSD (Grand Forks school district) to the state of North Dakota.”

“The good news is that without us using these data, Dr. Brenner and his staff would not have known it was not correct,” Murphy said. “Hence, as the U.S. military uses these data to rank schools, discovering this error is very, very important. Also ranking services use these (data) to rank our (high schools) nationally.”

No ACT composite score data for Community High School for the 2020-21 school year is displayed on the ND Insights website.

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“For ACT data to be displayed on the ND Insights website, the 11th-grade test takers needed to be enrolled at the Community Alternative High School for at least 120 days,” said Dale Wetzel, DPI public information specialist. “None of the 11th-grade students at the school were enrolled for that long, so their data is not displayed.”

Grand Forks ranks first statewide

Grand Forks Public Schools ranks first among the five largest school districts in the state in terms of ACT composite scores for the 2021-22 school year, according to Dr. Eric Lunn, president of the Grand Forks School Board.

Among the six school systems’ ACT scores for the 2021-22 school year, which were provided recently to the Grand Forks school district, Grand Forks ranks at the top with a score of 20.33 and is followed by Bismarck at 20.28; Fargo, 20.25; West Fargo, 19.00; Mandan, 18.33; and Williston Basin, 18.10, according to the DPI Office of Assessment.

The chart in the initial campaign brochure also outlined the cost per student, in 2020 dollars, in the Grand Forks school district from 2009 to 2020.

According to Kara Welk, assistant director of assessment with the state DPI, the cost per student here was $11,837 in 2018-19; $12,532 in 2019-20; and $13,513 in 2020-21 – the numbers, she said in an email to Brenner in September, “do not align with the chart in the pamphlet.”

Lunn and other education leaders are also troubled by a rumor that Red River High School’s ACT composite score was 14. For the 2020-21 school year, Red River’s ACT composite performance score was 20.19; Grand Forks Central’s was 19.73, according to the DPI.

Participation in ACT test-taking has been 90% at Central High School and 93% at Red River High School, district officials said.

For at least the past three years, the district’s composite scores have been higher than the state average – in 2019-20, 20.33 compared to the state score of 19.58; in 2020-21, 19.97 compared to 19.15; and in 2021-22, 20.33 compared to 19.61, according to the DPI.

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An Aug. 26 memo Welk sent to Brenner reveals Community High School’s ACT composite score for the 2021-22 school year is 15.38, and scores for Central and Red River high schools are 20.32 and 20.33, respectively.

The Community High students represent “a totally different population” from the city’s other two high schools, Lunn said.

Brenner said he believes the chart in the initial brochure “puts a false, black eye on the school district. And it’s certainly unfair to the students and support staff.”

Lunn said, “Sometimes false information is worse than no information.”

The state DPI provides detailed data regarding individual districts and schools at www.insights.nd.gov/Education/State/StateAssessment/ACT# .

A page, “Rumor Has It,” on the Grand Forks school district’s website, www.gfschools.org/Page/9488 , presents detailed information and data on academic activities and statistics.

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Pamela Knudson is a features and arts/entertainment writer for the Grand Forks Herald.

She has worked for the Herald since 2011 and has covered a wide variety of topics, including the latest performances in the region and health topics.

Pamela can be reached at pknudson@gfherald.com or (701) 780-1107.
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