Minnesota's students once again outperformed much of the nation on reading tests in 2009, but the achievement gap between black and white students hasn't budged in almost 20 years, according to test results released Wednesday.

The state's persistent, vexing achievement gap has become a long-term blemish on an otherwise good reputation for educational performance. The 2009 results of what's commonly called the "Nation's Report Card" show that Washington, D.C., is the only jurisdiction with a black-white gap statistically larger than Minnesota's in fourth grade, and that Connecticut is the only state with a larger gap in eighth grade, although some states didn't report enough data to be counted.

"Because our scores have remained real strong and steady, it kind of lets us feel like we're doing OK," said Education Commissioner Alice Seagren. "... But we really need to be concerned about our minority groups and the achievement gap."

The report card, officially titled the National Assessment of Educational Progress, shows that only three states outperformed Minnesota in reading by eighth-graders, and six outperformed the state in reading by fourth-graders.

The state is statistically tied with 23 states in fourth-grade and 15 states in eighth-grade. Minnesota's girls scored higher than its boys in both grades.

"We are really going to devote some significant additional money to trying to focus on our minority students and the achievement gap," Seagren said, "... and we're going to be looking at the whole continuum of schools, not only in elementary school, but middle and high school."

Last year, the Legislature voted to require prospective teachers, starting in 2012, to pass a test demonstrating that they know how to teach reading before they can receive a teaching license.

In addition, the state plans to use part of $34 million it recently received for the state's lowest-performing schools to improve reading instruction for the state's most at-risk students.

Educators can't let the achievement gap's stubbornness frustrate them, said Mike Savage, the educational coordinator at Forest Hills Elementary School in Eden Prairie, which saw its reading scores jump and its achievement gap narrow on state tests last year.

"We do not need to assume that a racial disparity is something that is just going to be there," said Savage, who advocates research-based methods when he trains staff on how to teach reading. "It's a question of how willing you are to meet the individual needs of students and how willing you are to know and understand that every child in your classroom has different needs."

Complex causes

The gap between white and black fourth-graders hasn't narrowed since 1992, the first year data were available. The same is true of eighth-graders since 1998, the first year of available data for that grade.

Likewise, the achievement gap between students who receive "free and reduced-price lunch" and those who don't has not changed since 1998, the earliest it was measured.

Education Minnesota, the statewide teachers' union, supports "achievement gap" legislation that would limit class sizes to 18 students, put social services on-site at schools, recruit more teachers of color and get more parents involved in students' educations.

Wednesday's test results "should be the latest wake-up call to Minnesota that it's time to seriously deal with the achievement gap," President Tom Dooher said in a news release.

Dooher said the causes of the achievement gap are "complex," with roots in socioeconomic issues.

"We need a combination of early childhood development, classroom resources and parental and teacher involvement to turn this around," he said.

Teaching kids to read

According to Sen. Kathy Saltzman, DFL-Woodbury, good reading instruction consists of five "big ideas" supported by research: phonics, comprehension, fluency, vocabulary and "phonemic awareness" -- the ability to recognize that words and syllables are composed of bits of sound.

Salztman, who sponsored the legislation requiring a reading test for would-be teachers, said that "unless we are very intentional in teaching children using these models, they will struggle to read. Reading is not something that comes naturally to people."

Nationwide, the test showed that eighth-graders have improved some in reading since 2007, while the overall results for fourth-graders didn't change.

Results are based on representative samples of 178,800 fourth-graders from 9,530 schools and 160,900 eighth-graders from 7,030 schools from all states, the District of Columbia, and Department of Defense schools.

Emily Johns • 612-673-7460