Minnesota students continue to lag in literacy and math proficiency, with standardized test scores far below pre-pandemic levels, new state data shows.

The data released Thursday illustrates the lingering effects that remote learning and other pandemic-related interruptions have had on students attending the state's public schools. Scores year over year were relatively flat, with math rising slightly while fewer students met reading benchmarks.

While the results are still somewhat muddied by lower participation than before the pandemic — overall, a little less than 6% of students did not take the test this year — they provide the clearest look yet at the ground left to gain in the state's classrooms.

Minnesota Department of Education Commissioner Willie Jett said in a statement that state officials hope to improve student achievement with new and existing programs, including a back-to-the-basics approach to reading instruction approved by the Legislature and a network of regional support initiatives for struggling schools.

"We will not shy away from what the data are telling us," Jett said. "These results send a renewed sense of urgency and underscore the importance of key supports that are already underway."

Here are five takeaways from the data:

A slight uptick in math

The students didn't score much better in 2023 than they did in 2022. Still, math scores rose by about 1%.

Michael Rodriguez, dean of the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Minnesota, said the increase in math scores made sense given that the 2022-23 school year was devoid of any major interruptions.

"I was expecting an uptick in math because we know time spent in school is more sensitive in that area," he said. "Math had more to gain."

Legislation aims to tackle dip in literacy

Minnesota students' reading scores, meanwhile, dropped by about 1% compared to last year. There's already a plan to try to address some of that.

The Minnesota Legislature set aside $70 million for training and other expenses to reform the way educators teach children how to read. The legislation will require districts to adopt a local literacy plan from a handful of programs approved by the Minnesota Department of Education.

"The most amazing thing is the volume of funding the Legislature has set to do all of this," Rodriguez said, noting some districts also face staffing shortages. "The tricky part will be the implementation."

The state Department of Education has not yet released the list of approved programs. The U is aiding the agency in identifying which strategies to adopt.

Achievement still lags far behind pre-pandemic levels

Math and reading scores had been on the decline in the years leading up to 2019. But the pandemic exacerbated that trend and Minnesota students registered far lower scores in both subjects than they did before COVID-19.

Students didn't lose nearly as much academic ground as they did in 2021, but schools have struggled to maintain a steady pattern of recovery.

"Our scores mirror these nationwide trends," Jett said. "This is reality. It's not a reality we want in Minnesota for our students."

The Northwest Evaluation Association, which creates the Measures for Academic Progress exam that approximately one-third of Minnesota students take each year, in July noted that academic progress stalled across the country compared to pre-pandemic times. The organization estimates the average student needs an additional four months of tutoring in reading instruction and nearly five months of additional help in math.

Racial disparities persist

Students of color continue to trail their peers in reading and math proficiency, a trend that was evident in test scores before the pandemic. Nearly half of Minnesota students who took the reading exam met state reading benchmarks. Fewer than 1 in 3 Black, Latino and American Indian students did.

The disparity is even more stark in math, where fewer than 1 in 4 Black, Latino and American Indian students met state math benchmarks in 2023.

"We know the effects of the pandemic were not borne equally by all populations in Minnesota, so it's not surprising to see those disparities now," said Michael Diedrich, policy specialist for the Minnesota Department of Education.

The state has a system for identifying schools that require intense support for specific student groups, Diedrich said. Department of Education officials will then work with teachers and administrators to dig into the root cause of why a given student group is struggling. They typically start by looking at attendance patterns, a key indicator of student success.

"That's something that's taken into account by all of our support systems," Diedrich said.

Middle schoolers struggle to bounce back

While students across all grade levels registered math and reading scores far lower than they did pre-pandemic, seventh- and eighth-graders saw the largest gaps. They were in fourth and fifth grades when the pandemic began.

That means students who had to transition from elementary to middle school did so during the most turbulent portion of the pandemic. Math scores for eighth-graders in 2023 were about 15 percentage points lower than scores for that grade in 2019. In the elementary grades, that difference was roughly 7 percentage points.

Rodriguez noted that middle schoolers have a far less favorable view of their time in the classroom now than they did before the pandemic. Just over half of eighth-graders who took the Minnesota Student Survey in 2022 said being a student is "the most important part of who I am." That's down from 2019, when nearly three-quarters of respondents agreed with that statement.

"We know that the transition from elementary to middle school is tough to begin with," Rodriguez said. "If we're not preparing the late elementary school students to the best of our ability when they engage in that transition, it's even more challenging."

Jennifer Dugan, director of academic standards, instruction and assessment at the state Department of Education, said middle schoolers are of particular concern for the Minnesota Council for Teachers of Mathematics. The group's members say students have a difficult time connecting to lessons. They've been meeting to discuss the state's math standards and looking for real-world scenarios to make the material more relevant to young teenagers.

"We're really digging into what the standards are calling for," Dugan said. "That's a place where we can think about high school and content application."

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Correction: An earlier version of the school lookup tool with this story incorrectly displayed how districts fared in reading and math scores year-over-year.