Once again, Minnesota students are returning to a new school year with news of poor performance on annual statewide tests.

Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment (MCA) scores released last week indicate that stubborn achievement gaps between white students and students of color persist. And two years of COVID-related disruptions contributed to an overall proficiency decline of 10 percentage points in math and 8 percentage points in reading since 2019.

It's a continuing problem made even worse by the pandemic, and one that demands the use of proven educational strategies and creative, innovative thinking to solve.

Test results from the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) show that just 45% of students were proficient in math and 51% were on track in reading in spring 2022.

As for the achievement gaps, just 20% of Black students were proficient in math, compared to 54% of white students. Only 28% of Native American students were reading at grade level, while 59% of white students were proficient.

It's important to note, however, that the recent year-to-year scores may not be directly comparable. About 7% of all students did not take the tests this year, and the participation rate varied by student group and grade level. Only 3% opted out in 2019, and the tests were not administered in 2020.

Before the pandemic, Minnesota's reading scores were stagnant and math proficiency was trending downward.

"These statewide assessment results reinforce what we already know — our students, families, school communities and educators need us to continue to meet this moment," Education Commissioner Heather Mueller said last week.

But the way the state and individual districts "meet this moment" is key. Resources should be directed at learning strategies that have demonstrated results.

To address the declines, the state's system of academic supports will be used as part of a new initiative to help 371 schools and 15 entire school districts. That assistance will come through MDE's COMPASS system — Collaborative Minnesota Partnerships to Advance Student Success — that gives struggling districts and schools additional teaching resources. St. Paul Public Schools have about two dozen schools that need support. In Minneapolis, there are nearly 30 schools. Many of those schools have significant achievement gaps among some groups of students.

"We know that it can be seen as disheartening. This is the first time our state and every other state has had to navigate a pandemic and educate our children," Mueller said.

In fact, a federal study released this week found that math and reading scores among 9-year-olds in the U.S. fell dramatically during the first two years of the pandemic. The nation saw its largest decrease in reading scores in three decades, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, a branch of the U.S. Education Department.

In Minnesota, the Star Tribune Editorial Board has consistently urged state and school district officials to redouble efforts to use proven strategies and successful academic models to help students learn. Too often, however, schools revert to the status quo.

During this 2022 gubernatorial campaign, education will be top of mind for many candidates and voters. Both DFL Gov. Tim Walz and his challenger, Republican Scott Jensen, have released education plans. Also this fall, legislative and school board candidates will be addressing education.

Minnesotans should tune in to the campaigns and demand that candidates offer specific strategies for improving achievement among all students.