ST. PAUL (AP) - Fourth-grade students in Minnesota scored at the top nationally in math and above the national average in reading, according to national test results released Thursday.
The National Assessment of Education Progress, known as the "Nation's Report Card," also shows Minnesota made some progress in eliminating disparities between white and non-white students. Commonly referred to as the achievement gap, the disparities have persisted in a state otherwise known for high student performance.
Minnesota's fourth-grade students overall posted the best math scores in the nation. Within that larger group, black students in Minnesota posted the fourth-highest math scores among all black students in the country, after being the 22nd-best in 2011.
Overall, Minnesota fourth-graders posted the 10th-best reading scores in the country.
"We have made important progress. However, we still have much hard work ahead of us," Gov. Mark Dayton said in response to the test scores. He and his education commissioner, Brenda Cassellius, said the gains vindicated their efforts to emphasize early learning - particularly a focus on improving literacy among third-graders.
Eighth-graders are also tested in the National Assessment, which has traditionally been the primary vehicle for measuring academic performance between different demographic groups.
We will no longer have to say we're at the bottom," Cassellius said.
Nationally, just 42 percent of fourth-graders and 35 percent of eighth-graders scored at or above the proficient level in math. In reading, 35 percent of fourth-graders and 36 percent of eighth-graders hit that mark.
While Minnesota eighth-graders as a group did well overall - fifth best in the nation in math and 11th best in reading - they showed less improvement compared to 2011.
"It is a challenge for our district," Marshall Schools Superintendent Klint Willert said Thursday. "When you look across all the different things that get measured through various assessments, you see a gap disparity from our more traditional students to our English language learners. It's a gap that's been ongoing.
"We're working at it; we'd certainly like to see it close," Willert added. "In the last presidential election, both candidates said the achievement gap issue is the civil rights issue of the 21st century. We all want to assure every child is achieving at a high level. From an economic perspective, we certainly need a high number of highly-skilled workers to replace the baby boom population now entering their retirement years."
Additionally, the achievement gap between white and black students was starker among eighth-graders: fourth largest in the nation in math, and seventh largest in reading.
Cassellius said eighth-graders suffered more than their younger counterparts from declining state and federal resources for schools during lean state budget years in the last decade. State policy makers need to "double down on our eighth- grade efforts," she said.
Earlier this year, state lawmakers approved a $485 million spending increase for schools that Cassellius said would help in directing new resources "for those students who have not had the same support since preschool."
"We've really tried to take some proactive steps in doing what we're going with a response to intervention; we've hired reading coaches, and we support reading development in the classroom," said Willert. "We're imbedding those skills in every classroom."
And it's happening outside the classroom, too, Willert said, with local after-school programs like Project Success that give students an added learning opportunity with "the objective being that students have some extra support, extra time, to help fight that gap."
House Republican Leader Kurt Daudt questioned whether simply spending more money was the key to boosting student achievement.
"If it was just funding - why did we see improvements at the fourth grade level but we didn't see improvements at the eighth- grade level? Those students saw the same number of dollars flowing into their classrooms," he said.