Minnesota fourth-graders are the best in the country at math, and eighth-graders rank fifth, according to results of a nationwide test released Thursday.

The fourth-graders posted the highest math scores in the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), considered the best comparison of students from state to state. Only Massachusetts and New Hampshire students came close.

The NAEP is given every two years to fourth- and eighth-graders and also covers reading. Minnesota fourth-graders had the 10th-best reading scores, up from 22nd two years ago, and eighth-graders were 11th best.

"These results are very encouraging, especially among our state's youngest children," Gov. Mark Dayton said. "I congratulate Minnesota students, educators and parents for their hard work."

The tests also indicated that Minnesota's notoriously stubborn achievement gap showed signs of relenting.

Several minority groups saw improvements. African-American fourth-graders, for example, had the fourth-highest math scores among black students nationwide. In 2011, those Minnesota students ranked 22nd.

Officials cautiously hailed progress on the achievement gap, an area in which Minnesota has lagged.

"I am really encouraged by the data we have today," Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius said. "We will no longer say we're at the bottom."

Still, the achievement gap does remain. And the test results also showed a divide between the younger and older students.

While Minnesota fourth-graders had the best scores in the country in math, eighth-graders showed little change between 2011 and 2013.

In reading, although Minnesota's eighth-graders ranked 11th nationally, their scores improved by only one point, from 270 to 271 on a 500-point scale.

Nationally, there were very modest improvements in both subjects for both grades.

Contrasting views

Cassellius said the difference between the two Minnesota grade levels suggests the Dayton administration's push for schools to intervene at earlier ages is boosting fourth-grade scores.

"Our eighth-grade students, by contrast, faced years of disinvestment and did not get the same kind of focused attention on early literacy as students in recent years have gotten," Cassellius said. "We clearly have much more work to do to increase achievement for those students who have not had the same kind of support since preschool."

A top Republican saw things differently. House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said the fourth-grade scores were a result of some of the early literacy policies that Republicans spearheaded when they controlled the Legislature in 2011.

"However, Democrats in the last legislative session have reversed a lot of legislative reforms that were put in place and frankly have turned the direction of education in Minnesota exactly in the opposite direction," he said. "Our concerns are by getting rid of the graduation standard tests and lowering accountability and lowering standards for Minnesota students, we aren't going to see the improvements that our students deserve."

The NAEP tests are given to randomly selected fourth- and eighth-graders. About 3,000 Minnesota students were selected to take the 2013 test.

Eased concerns

The results should help ease parents' concerns after Minnesota students experienced a sharp decline in the reading portion of the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments taken last school year.

State education officials chalked up the drop to the fact that the test was based on tough new Common Core standards.

Minnesota adopted those standards for reading but decided to forgo them for math. At the time, then-Education Commissioner Alice Seagren argued that the state's math standards were tougher than Common Core and ultimately would lead to better academic results.

Cassellius has long argued that test scores will improve if the state doesn't repeatedly change its academic standards as it has in the past.

It's an idea wholeheartedly endorsed by teachers.

"That's has been a huge challenge for me because I feel like our standards have been a moving target," said Jennifer Wenzel, a first-grade teacher in the Centennial district.

Cassellius and Dayton said they expect to see to see NAEP scores improve in the future as a result of the state's investment in early learning scholarships and all-day kindergarten.

Kim McGuire • 612-673-4469