The latest test scores from Minnesota schools show no improvement in math and reading and little movement in the state's persistent achievement gap for students of color — but state education officials are downplaying the results, saying they don't provide a full picture of student or school performance.

Despite years of work to boost test scores and reduce disparities between student groups, statewide reading scores remained flat for the third year in a row, with 60 percent of students meeting state standards for proficiency in the 2017-18 school year. Math scores declined, with 57 percent of students meeting state standards, down from 59 percent a year earlier.

Meanwhile, the performance gaps improved slightly but remained stark: a 35 percentage point gap between white and black students in reading and a 38 percentage point difference in math statewide, with even bigger divides for students in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

The results released Thursday come as the state launches a new system for measuring schools, relying on test scores but also on data related to students' progress over time, graduation rates and attendance records.

Unlike in past years, the test results were released with little fanfare or official comment — which State Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius said was a calculated move to show schools, students and parents that her department is interested in more than standardized tests.

"It's a way to communicate to the public that we are shifting to more measures and more well-rounded opportunities for our kids in the future," she said.

But because the North Star accountability system — a replacement for measures like adequate yearly progress (AYP) and standards drafted under the No Child Left Behind federal education law — is new, annual test scores are one of the few standard measures available to gauge a school's progress.

Cassellius acknowledged that the test scores show that more work remains for Minnesota schools on a number of fronts, including proficiency rates in core academic subjects.

"You will not get me ever saying that anything is acceptable until every single child is meeting the expectations and meeting grade level standards," she said.

The Minneapolis Public Schools reported flat scores in math, where 42 percent of students met standards, and a slight uptick in reading, where nearly 45 percent of students were proficient, up from 43 percent a year earlier.

But in both subjects, the district has a significant achievement gap, with a 59 percentage point difference between white and black students in reading, and a 60 percentage point gap in math.

The divide between white students and American Indian students in math, meanwhile, was nearly 61 percentage points.

In a news release, district officials said they are hopeful the state's new accountability system — and the additional help it will offer for schools struggling with academic performance, attendance and graduation rates — will help boost all of its students.

"In MPS, we have not seen the math and literacy trends we want to see," said Eric Moore, the district's chief of accountability, innovation and research.

"But by continuing to implement our district's four core priorities and using information from the North Star accountability system, we are hoping to change our trajectory over time."

In the St. Paul School District, reading scores inched upward, with 38.4 percent of students testing proficient — a 0.6 percentage point improvement from a year ago — but math scores fell by two percentage points to 33 percent proficiency.

"While we are pleased with the slight increase in reading performance, particularly in grades 3, 4, 6, 7 and 10, we acknowledge our lack of sustained and progressive increases in all areas," Superintendent Joe Gothard said in a statement. "We've worked to address the challenges to achievement, and we simply have not made enough progress. This is disappointing."

Gothard will set out this fall to sharpen a new strategic plan that aims to shrink the achievement gaps and boost the performance of English language learners and special education students.

Those were goals shared by a predecessor, Valeria Silva, who felt the district could improve achievement by putting a greater reliance on neighborhood schools.

Despite the structural changes that ensued, the gap between white students and black students who tested proficient in math increased from 45 percentage points in 2013 — a "horrific" number in one school board member's view — to 49 percentage points this year. In reading, the gap this year is similarly severe with nearly 50 percentage points separating white and black students.

Gothard expressed hope that the state's new way of assessing schools will offer a more complete view.

"The North Star ratings consider many factors in addition to test scores, and this gives us a far more realistic picture of where our students are and how best to help them," he said. "In a district with so many different kinds of students, coming from so many backgrounds and cultures, this is vital."

Business leaders worried

Minneapolis and St. Paul both have multiple entries on the state's new list of low-performing schools that will be targeted for "comprehensive" help from a team of state education specialists.

Other districts issued news releases lauding their test score performance — or offering similar optimism that a new accountability system will help nudge scores upward.

Leaders at Hiawatha Academies, which runs a handful of charter schools in south Minneapolis, said they were disappointed with their schools' results, but are making major shifts in teaching and technology to help bring them up in future years.

Across Hiawatha's campuses, 34 percent of students met state standards in math in 2017-18, down 8 percentage points from a year earlier.

In reading, the school saw an equivalent drop and reported that 31 percent of its students were proficient.

"We are deeply disappointed in last year's results, because we know that our scholars are capable of so much, and it is our responsibility to support them in achieving their fullest potential," said executive director Colette Owens. "We are confident the renewed sense of focus from our chief academic officer, principals and teachers will help us continue to grow and improve."

Other groups tracking schools' progress, meanwhile, say they are wary after years of little progress in many districts and schools.

Charlie Weaver, executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership, said the state's education system must improve to ensure students are adequately prepared for the workforce.

"The fact is that Minnesota cannot succeed in a global economy if only 60 percent of our students can read or do math at grade level," he said. "At a time when talent is in short supply and employers are desperate for workers, we cannot afford to continue to fail 40 percent of our students — many of whom are students of color."

Staff writer Anthony Lonetree contributed to this report.