In the face of falling test scores and some of the biggest racial achievement gaps in the nation, the administration of Gov. Tim Walz is shifting its education focus from assessment tests to graduation rates, with the goal of reducing the number of high school dropouts to zero.

“We’re looking a little more holistically at this, and I’m looking at that graduation rate. How do we not lose these kids?” said Walz, the first-term DFL governor, in a Star Tribune interview. “If we can get them to graduation, everything from social determinants of health to [job] placement to wealth increases exponentially.”

Republican critics and some education advocates are concerned that an aggressive push for higher graduation rates could lead schools to cut corners or serve as a convenient deflection from recent test results that show overall stagnation and even decline in mathematics: “Do we have higher graduation rates because we’ve lowered the standards?” asked state Rep. Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls, a former teacher. “We’re also seeing this with younger readers not meeting grade level.”

Perhaps no governor in recent Minnesota history has more riding on school outcomes than Walz, who was a high school geography teacher and football coach for 20 years and is married to Gwen Walz, a fellow educator who is playing a significant role in the administration.

For Walz, closing graduation and achievement gaps is more than just a seemingly intractable policy puzzle woven into disparities in housing and income. He also faces a delicate political challenge: Education Minnesota, the state’s influential teachers union, endorsed him at a key moment during his 2018 campaign. The union also contributed $100,000 to a political fund that backed Walz during the DFL primary — after he lost the DFL endorsement.

He appointed Mary Cathryn Ricker, a national and local school union leader, to be his education commissioner.

Although the state’s education system is widely celebrated and thought to be key to Minnesota’s significant corporate success and robust middle class, Walz takes over at a perilous time.

Minnesota has struggled for decades to educate children from communities of color, and now those students account for 35% of the student body. If the proportion of students of color grows at its current pace — about 1 percentage point per year — they will account for nearly 40% of K-12 students by the end of Walz’s four-year term.

Without significant improvement among these students, Minnesota’s education system will likely slide into something resembling mediocrity.

“It’s not sustainable. It’s a crisis we have to address,” said Scott Croonquist, executive director of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts, which has put out its own broad recommendations.

Walz does not shy away from the issue: “It’s a reality I clearly understood and I said during the campaign that I’ll be judged and should be judged by how well we close [those disparities], as long as we’re given the tools, and I take that responsibility,” he said.

But some education activists remain unimpressed, citing the administration’s muted response to the recent test scores, which the Department of Education released along with a more upbeat survey of student assessment called “The State of Our Students.”

“It’s a flashy report that has pretty graphics but doesn’t tell the whole story,” said Dan Sellers, executive director of EdAllies, a Minnesota-based advocacy group focused on racial disparities. “It spins the data in as positive a light as they can, which does a disservice. You don’t solve the achievement gap by trying to sweep them under the rug.”

The report highlights that in 2018, 50% of Advanced Placement tests taken by American Indian students received a score of 3 or higher out of 5. As EdAllies pointed out in a blog post, the report fails to mention this amounts to just 78 of the state’s 49,903 AP scores meeting the 3-or-higher benchmark.

Walz acknowledged the worrisome trends but said the naysayers are being “irresponsible.”

“I’m disappointed in those scores. I take them seriously. There are yellow flashing lights. But I also think there are so many positive things happening and so many reasons to be optimistic,” he said.

Walz and Ricker are working on a strategic vision they hope to roll out in the next six to eight months for improving results and closing the gaps.

Ricker has been reviewing data and traveling the state to discover strategies that are working in local school districts, with the hope of exporting them to the rest of Minnesota.

She points to graduation rates among Latino students in West St. Paul, for instance, which stand at 94%, compared with 63% in St. Paul.

“The overriding message is that relationships matter,” she said of the excelling schools. “In elementary or middle or high schools, the strongest teaching and learning communities focus on relationships.”

Ricker’s hypothesis is intuitive: When students and their parents feel bonded to their classrooms and schools, they thrive.

The shift in focus from proficiency tests to high school graduation rates appears to be driven by two factors: need and opportunity. Graduation rates among students from Minnesota communities of color are some of the lowest in the nation — a result closely related to the state’s high student achievement disparities.

But Walz and Ricker also seem genuinely excited by the feasibility of getting to zero dropouts. As his model, Walz is using his previous goal of ending veterans homelessness, which the state purportedly achieved earlier this year across a large swath of his former congressional district in southern Minnesota.

“Graduation rates are abysmal for Native American students,” he said, referring to the completion rate of 51%. “But it’s 1,289 students. We can get to every one of them. That’s less than [Minneapolis’] South High School!” he exclaimed. Indeed, he and Ricker both can rattle off the number of all 2018 Minnesota dropouts from memory — 3,064.

Although the number seems small, the work is still daunting for school districts and teachers.

Education Minnesota President Denise Specht applauds shifting the focus from mere proficiency tests to graduation and a student’s “body of work.”

Specht said teachers want what she called “full funding” of education; the union has called for an additional $4.3 billion in spending over the next two years, over and above the increase needed to account for inflation and enrollment growth. It’s a 20% increase over current spending.

Given the challenges of today’s more diverse student bodies, Specht said teachers need smaller class sizes and more counselors, social workers and psychologists. Minnesota now has among the fewest counselors per capita in the nation. She said the state needs more special-education instructors and support systems. To alleviate a glaring shortage of teachers of color, the union advocates for student debt relief and higher starting teacher salaries.

With the start of the school year, Walz penned an op-ed calling on Minnesotans to join him in making the North Star state “the education state.” While many applaud his goal, some advocates say the devil will be in the details.

When it comes to minority and immigrant children, said Sellers of EdAllies, “Just saying we’re going to be the state of education doesn’t make it so.”

Data editor MaryJo Webster contributed to this report.