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Fewer than half of Minnesota students are proficient in math, as measured by statewide test scores released this week, and the growth of their reading skills has also lagged as schools navigated the tumultuous years of the pandemic.

The results provide the most substantive look so far of the toll on public school students — but they come with the caveat that participation in the standardized tests still lags pre-pandemic levels, muddying comparisons from year to year.

Overall, about 7% of students did not take the tests this year, but the participation rate varied by grade level and student group. Before the pandemic, about 2-3% of the state's students didn't take the annual assessments.

Still, the test scores confirm what educators and families have long suspected: Remote learning in the early days of COVID-19 and disruptions due to outbreaks in the fall and winter of 2021-22 left students academically lagging as society returned to normal in fits and starts.

"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," Education Commissioner Heather Mueller said.

On the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments and the Minnesota Test of Academic Skills, about 45% of the students tested met proficiency levels on math tests, while about 51% were proficient on reading tests.

Those scores are down from before the pandemic — with math scores taking the steepest slide. But results since 2019 make imperfect comparisons because no standardized tests were given in 2020, and more than 20% of the state's students didn't take the tests in 2021, many citing pandemic complications.

Michael Rodriguez, dean of the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Minnesota, wasn't surprised to learn students had more catch-up to do in math than in reading. He noted that children rarely take on rigorous math when not in class.

When they're out of school, he said, children still have access to libraries. They might also read with their parents at home.

"You don't need as much dependence on schools for reading achievement than you do in math," Rodriguez said.

That means teachers have more work to do during math lessons. And when disruptions come along — such as a temporary return to remote learning during a spike in COVID-19 infections — it's that much more difficult to get back on track.

"We're not covering as much content in math. That shows the real need," Rodriguez said.

The state continues to face stubborn racial disparities, too, as scores have dropped for all groups on both reading and math tests since before the pandemic. For instance, 59% of white students were proficient in reading, compared with about 31% of Black and Hispanic students.

The test data is one of the metrics the Minnesota Department of Education used to update its North Star Accountability report identifying 371 public schools that require intense support. Other factors include attendance, English proficiency and graduation rates.

For the first time since the report's inception in 2018, state education officials also began tracking high schools that send a high number of students to credit recovery and other alternative programs.

Officials decided to trace those students through elementary and middle school years to identify what kind of support to offer in the early stages of a child's education before they need more intense interventions.

"I think what we want to recognize is that this doesn't just happen," Mueller said of the various ways high schoolers end up in alternative programs.

St. Paul Public Schools have about two dozen schools on the list of those needing support.

But Stacey Gray Akyea, the district's director of research, evaluation and assessment, noted 11 St. Paul schools made enough progress to be removed from the list — and she hopes to see a trend of improvement.

"We had challenges before COVID, and this really reflects the impacts of the pandemic and how much work we need to do," Gray Akyea said.

Nearly 30 Minneapolis schools were identified as needing support. The district will involve parents in improvement plans at those schools, many of which made the list because of significant achievement gaps for specific groups of students.

"We really want to hold ourselves accountable to the student groups we've underserved," said Sarah Hunter, the district's director of research, evaluation, assessment and accountability.

The state data "paralleled" much of Minneapolis Public Schools' internal data, she said, and "creates a new base line that we need to now recover from."

In Duluth, where the Education Department identified three schools in need of intense state support, Superintendent John Magas said he and his cabinet last summer thought 2021-22 would be their "comeback year."

He expected students to bounce back and make gains on the state reading and math tests. Instead, reading scores dropped by 2 percentage points and math by about twice as much.

Rising COVID-19 infections in the fall and winter meant Magas blew through his budget for substitutes. Like other districts, Duluth schools also went remote for two weeks due to a wave of staff absences.

"We weren't able to focus deeply on interventions, support for students and increasing the capacity of the system," Magas said.

He said more state funding to help cover the cost of special education and competitive wages for support staff would help the district better serve students who have the most intense academic needs.

"I would rather be able to pay the people who take care of our kids a living wage so they don't have to work two, three jobs," Magas said.

By contrast, schools in the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan district maintained in-person instruction for the entire school year. The district has one alternative school on the state's list of those in need of support.

Director of Teaching and Learning Steve Troen said the district managed to cover for staff absences by paying teachers to sub for colleagues.

"The goal was to get some of that sense of normalcy back," Troen said.

Staff writer Anthony Lonetree contributed to this report.