Education Commissioner Mary Catherine Ricker summed up this week's release of student test scores this way: "The state of Minnesota students is promising."

She based that surprisingly positive review on data from a new "State of our Students" report, and the second year of the North Star accountability system, which includes the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments basic skills test scores. That broad range of assessments found higher graduation rates among all students, and greater participation in ACT college test-taking by black and American Indian students.

While some of the findings were encouraging, a major indicator of how state students are doing academically remains flat or falling. Almost no progress has been made to narrow the state's unacceptably large achievement disparities between white students and students of color.

It's a continuing conundrum that calls for using demonstrably effective strategies, replicating successful models and use of innovative instruction. The annual data drop is the first for first-term Gov. Tim Walz and Ricker, who are both former teachers. Their challenge is to help move the needle through guidance and cooperation with local districts.

Reading scores from several statewide standardized exams — including the largest test, the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments, or MCAs — dropped, with about 58% of all students meeting state standards. And math scores fell for the fourth consecutive year: 54% of students met proficiency standards in 2018-19.

According to the same data set, every racial group saw a decline in student progress on test scores over time, and attendance rates declined for the majority of racial groups. This year's test scores show that 63% of white students met proficiency standards in math, compared with 26% of black and American Indian students.

Ricker told an editorial writer that the gaps are "pernicious," but they cannot be turned around by evaluating test scores alone. She said education leaders are shifting away from test scores and giving more weight to other benchmarks, including graduation rates, attendance and student surveys on bullying and emotional health.

The commissioner said state leaders will take a "whole student" approach to address conditions outside the classroom, such as disparities in housing, health care and income that affect academic performance. "My promise to our students is to continue seeing their strengths, persist alongside them and tackle the barriers that stand in their way," Ricker said.

In early August, the Ciresi Walburn Foundation for Children started running ads on Twin Cities-area trains, buses and billboards that read, "Minnesota schools are worst in the nation for our children of color." The black-and-white ads highlighted "worst in the nation" in yellow.

Leaders of the campaign said the ads were designed to spark more debate and more action on narrowing achievement gaps. The message underscores the urgent need for action, and Walz, Ricker and members of the Legislature should answer the call.