The Minnesota Department of Education's amorphous role in helping school districts close academic achievement gaps renders a trio of state programs largely ineffective in tackling those disparities, a new state audit found.

And much of that fuzziness is a direct result of the lack of clarity in state law over the agency's role, according to the Legislative Auditor's report.

"While many of us are concerned about the achievement gap, we don't believe the statutes reflect that level of concern," Legislative Auditor Judy Randall said at a legislative hearing Tuesday.

The findings are worrying, auditors wrote, because Minnesota's student population has grown more racially and ethnically diverse as those academic disparities have persisted, which means more students risk going underserved.

White students accounted for 82% of public school enrollment during the 2001-02 academic year. During the 2020-21 school year, that rate had dropped to 64%.

In 2019, 46% of Minnesota's white fourth-graders tested proficient in reading compared with 20% of Black, Latino and Native students. Minnesota is also tied with Wisconsin for the largest gap in SAT and ACT scores between Black students and their white peers.

Auditors recommended that state lawmakers more clearly define the Education Department's role in closing those gaps and require the department to regularly update the Legislature on its progress.

"This mandated report would be one way for legislators to keep tabs on which school districts are meeting their achievement gap goals and which are not," project manager Sarah Delacueva said.

Auditors evaluated four distinct programs the education department oversees. They found that while three of those programs — World's Best Workforce, Achievement and Integration for Minnesota and American Indian Education initiatives — cited closing the achievement gap in their mission statements, none made that its central charge.

And even though state education officials claim the agency's strategic plan clears that requirement with a stated goal of closing the achievement gap, state auditors say it falls short in detailing how it will do so and measure its progress.

"What the strategic plan lacks, however, are sufficiently observable quantitative measures (beyond the size of the achievement gap itself) to show the effect of those strategies in addressing the achievement gap," auditors wrote.

While auditors largely pressed the Education Department on its perceived shortcomings, they found a few bright spots in the agency's efforts to boost academic outcomes for underserved students.

Auditors wrote that school officials across the state largely appreciated the department's efforts in helping them track down strategies for attacking the academic gap. Auditors and legislators alike praised the fourth program evaluated — Regional Centers of Excellence — as an example of the kind of support the agency could scale up to better serve more students.

"In regard to the Regional Centers of Excellence, I have to say, my hat goes off to the service cooperatives because they have made that program successful," Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton, said.

Minnesota Education Commissioner Heather Mueller acknowledged there are areas where her department can improve, but she pushed back on several findings.

Mueller told lawmakers that while she appreciated the audit's lauding of the Regional Centers of Excellence program, she noted that the initiative boasts enough funding for 57 full-time positions.

The other three programs evaluated by the auditors employ a combined seven full-time employees. That means that in one office, Mueller said, one person may be tasked with coordinating with nearly 200 school districts.

She also took issue with auditors' interpretation of a state law that requires the Education Department to report its evaluations of districts' compliance with the World's Best Workforce program.

While auditors wrote that the department should issue an annual report that dissects three years' worth of data, Mueller contends that the law as written means the department only needs to produce the report every three years.

"The plain language of the statute does not state that the reviews must occur annually," Mueller said.

Mueller told lawmakers that if they want her department to beef up its efforts in areas the auditors noted, they should allocate more funding.

She also told legislators that external factors, such as students' home lives and their access to extracurricular activities, play a role in producing disparate academic outcomes.

Auditors largely agreed. They wrote that those factors are essential to understanding why some students fall behind, because "if a student's basic needs are not being met, it can be difficult to focus on instruction."

External factors can in turn affect how well students do on standardized tests, auditors wrote. And kids who get pulled out of class more frequently miss enrichment opportunities, such as art or music classes, hindering their education.

"What we really need to be thinking about is what leads to that gap," Mueller said.