As Minnesota students return to school this month, there's troubling new evidence that pandemic disruptions have hurt academic achievement. Significant drops in proficiency on statewide math and reading tests tell the story.

The testing data also shows that stubbornly entrenched disparities between white students and students of color only got worse during the past school year.

Educators must quickly respond with strategies to improve achievement, social-emotional health and family support. They should use the new infusion of federal COVID recovery funds wisely to help students make up for what they've lost.

According to recently released Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments, or MCAs, student proficiency rates fell 11 percentage points in math, to 44%. The state Department of Education reported that reading proficiency is down 7 points, to 53%, since the tests were last given in 2019.

"The statewide assessment results confirm what we already knew — that the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted our students' learning and they need our help to recover," Education Commissioner Heather Mueller said.

In Minneapolis, 35% of students met math standards, a decrease of 7 percentage points. In reading, 46% were proficient, about the same as two years ago. In St. Paul, 21% of students met state math standards, down 11 percentage points from the last test. About one-third of the district's tested students were proficient in reading, down 6 percentage points.

In both cities roughly half of the eligible students took the tests, and it's critical to note that mostly because of pandemic complications 20% of eligible students statewide opted out, compared with just 3% in 2019.

The same troubling trends have occurred across the nation. According to a new report from McKinsey & Co. consultants, by the end of the 2020-21 school year students were, on average, four to five months behind where they'd typically been in past school years.

National statistics also show that disparities among racial groups deepened during the pandemic. Researchers said achievement differences are caused by a mix of factors, including that low-income communities and communities of color tended to have more COVID-19 cases and less access to technology.

What should be done to help kids recover? Spokespeople for Minneapolis and St. Paul schools told an editorial writer that they are putting additional focus on literacy for younger students and on earning needed credits in middle and high schools. And both are devoting more resources to the mental and social-emotional health of students.

At the state level, officials announced the statewide Collaborative of Minnesota Partnerships to Advance Student Success (COMPASS) to coordinate additional training for educators to help students make up lost academic ground.

States and districts can fund these efforts through several federal aid programs, including the CARES Act and the American Rescue Plan. The U.S. government has committed more than $200 billion to K–12 education over the next three years, and research supports using some of that funding for frequent, intensive one-on-one or small-group tutoring. While it is expensive, it's one of the most effective ways to help kids catch up.

In addition, the education advocacy group EdAllies rightly points out that the disparities are not new and that going back to education "business as usual" will not be enough. Using different, proven strategies to quickly stem learning loss and improve achievement should be the top priority for students this fall.

Parents and communities, EdAllies says, should let districts know what their children need as school leaders are deciding how to use the federal funds. And educators must receive MCA and other data more quickly and use it to drive their decisions.