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DFL Gov. Tim Walz wants to reduce the number of Minnesota school dropouts to zero, from about 3,000 annually. Walz and Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker recently announced a special focus on retaining students and helping them graduate. They believe turning around the dropout rate will go a long way toward improving the lives and future prospects of Minnesota students.

While it’s a laudable goal, the effort must be pursued in concert with effective strategies to improve academic achievement. Though Minnesota is often praised for test scores relative to other states, those results can mask the state’s deeply entrenched learning disparities between low-income students of color and their white classmates. The overall four-year state graduation rate was 83% in 2018. But 88% of white students graduated on time, compared with 51% of American Indians, 67% of black students and 67% of Hispanic students.

Increasing graduation rates won’t mean much if students receive diplomas without mastering basic skills or being ready for college or the job market.

Republican critics and some education advocates raise that concern. They rightly worry that a focus on higher graduation rates could divert attention from recent test results and other academic achievement measures. “Do we have higher graduation rates because we’ve lowered the standards?” asked state Rep. Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls, a former teacher. “We’re also seeing this with younger readers not meeting grade level.”

Some observers, including the Star Tribune Editorial Board, recently noted that the Education Department released flat or lower statewide reading and math test results as part of a more positive overall student assessment called “The State of Our Students.”

“It’s a flashy report that has pretty graphics but doesn’t tell the whole story,” Dan Sellers, executive director of EdAllies, a Minnesota-based advocacy group focused on racial disparities, told the Star Tribune. “It spins the data in as positive a light as they can, which does a disservice. You don’t solve the achievement gap by trying to sweep them under the rug.”

Addressing that criticism, Ricker told Editorial Board members last week that the administration is pleased about rising grad rates but “not satisfied’’ with the achievement results. Ricker said she and Walz, both former teachers, take the poor test results seriously and are working on more specific strategies to improve scores and close gaps they hope to roll out in the next six to eight months.

In the meantime, Ricker says, they have delved into student data and believe they can make significant headway in keeping more students in school and on track to graduate. During her first year in office, she has traveled the state to discover strategies that are working in local school districts.

She points to graduation rates among Latino students in West St. Paul, for example, which stand at 94%, compared with 63% in St. Paul. She found that the Deer River and Grand Rapids school districts do a better job of graduating American Indian students than do most other districts. And she learned that some students who enroll in Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs have higher graduation and postsecondary placement rates.

Ricker is exploring ways to share information and replicate those successful programs. That’s a strategy that’s long been urged by the Editorial Board. There are promising efforts underway throughout the state aimed at boosting graduation rates and student achievement, and both are critical goals.