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Minnesota students' scores on national math and reading exams administered to fourth- and eighth-graders last spring showed a steep slide in student performance and some of the worst results in decades.

The results released Monday from the National Assessment of Educational Performance (NAEP) showed drops in student proficiency across the country. No state saw gains.

That slide "continues trends that we have seen beginning in 2017, prior to COVID," said Kevin Burns, spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Education.

"We expected declines, given the disruption everyone experienced during the pandemic, but that doesn't make these results easier to see," he wrote in an email. "While Minnesota student scores outpace national scores, we must work diligently to take the necessary steps to help all students, across all grades, achieve."

The results come just two weeks before the midterm elections, which have prompted fierce debate about education as candidates jockey for control over state and school district budgets.

The average score for a Minnesota eighth-grader on the assessment this year was 280 out of 300 possible points. That's an 11-point drop in average math scores since the assessment was last administered in 2019, compared with the eight-point slide nationally.

In 1992, Minnesota eighth-graders averaged a score of 282.

The average fourth-grade math score in Minnesota was 239 in 2022, a drop of nine points compared with five points nationally, and the lowest score in more than 20 years.

Those drops worry Michael Rodriguez, dean of the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Minnesota.

Minnesota students outpaced national averages for years, and are still scoring slightly above their peers nationally in math. But they've fallen to or below average in reading.

"We're sort of losing that edge a little bit faster than the nation is," Rodriguez said.

National Center for Education Statistics Commissioner Peggy Carr said declines of two or three points on the math assessment demonstrate a meaningful slide in academic achievement. She called the national drop in eighth-grade math scores "stark."

"It is troubling. It is significant," she said during a call with news media.

Rodriguez said Minnesota math scores are worrying because today's students are tomorrow's researchers in areas such as energy independence and technological advancement.

"It's really about our ability to be high-performing innovators," he said.

Reading scores also dropped for fourth- and eighth-graders both in Minnesota and nationally, but not by nearly as much as they did in math. That makes sense, Carr said, because families help children learn how to read, maybe encouraging them to read in the evening or asking what a street sign says.

"That's not unusual for parents to say," Carr said. "But it is unusual for parents to say, 'Go and calculate that problem you had trouble with a couple of weeks ago.'"

Still, Rodriguez struck an optimistic note on the road to an academic rebound.

"I don't think it's going to take decades for us to recover, but it will take some effort," he said. "And it's especially going to take some effort with students who don't have access to resources and supports."

Twin Cities-area school leaders anticipated declines, having seen how pandemic disruptions affected student performance as pupils re-entered classrooms in earnest during the 2021-22 school year. Results on the state's Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments also slipped during the pandemic.

Districts expanded summer school offerings, access to tutors and after-school programs using federal rescue funds.

"They've tried to find ways to make up that time," said Scott Croonquist, executive director of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts.

But even with ample funding to hire for support positions, Croonquist said districts are having a difficult time filling jobs. Minneapolis Public Schools, for instance, has 650 open positions — roughly a quarter of which serve students with special needs.

"Trying to provide additional learning opportunities is proving difficult," Croonquist said.

Both Carr, the national education statistics commissioner, and Denise Specht, president of the union that represents Minnesota teachers, said districts must provide students with mental health services. Specht noted that mental health was a concern for the state's teens before the pandemic.

"We don't need a test score to figure that out. Our students and our educators are telling us that," Specht said, noting educators were overwhelmed by student needs, from deaths in the family to financial insecurity.

Specht called for lawmakers to allocate more funding to pay for teachers to reduce class sizes, plus hire support staff and mental health specialists.

"We're asking for more support teams that can help our students who are really struggling," Specht said.

Republicans pounced on Monday's results by lambasting Gov. Tim Walz's decision to shutter schools for in-person instruction in 2020.

"We need new ideas and leadership to get students back on track," said Sen. Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes, who chairs the Senate Education Committee. "Senate Republicans proposed significant literacy funding to ensure every kid can read by third grade, and made accountability and academics in the classroom a priority. Our students, parents, and educators deserve better than empty promises and burdensome mandates."

Earlier this year, House Democrats pitched a $1 billion package that would expand prekindergarten offerings and boost mental health supports, plus close the nearly half-billion-dollar gap districts face in the cost of running federally mandated special education and English learner programs. Senate Republicans countered with their own plan, which would have provided up to $30 million for literacy programs.

Neither was approved.

Carr cautioned against using the newly released results to deduce the impacts of remote learning on students' academic performance. Exam administrators asked students only if they spent any time learning remotely in the two years leading up to the test, not how much.

"We cannot find anything in this data that says the results we are looking at can be solely, primarily attributable to how long students stayed in remote learning," Carr said.

She added that it doesn't mean remote learning "didn't have an effect," but that education researchers must dig deeper into the data.

The NAEP exams are widely regarded as providing the only results that can be compared fairly across the country.

That's because the assessments are administered every two years to randomly selected fourth- and eighth-graders in all 50 states and the Department of Defense's schools for military families. About 3,000 Minnesota students typically participate.