ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP/WCCO) — Fourth-grade students in Minnesota scored at the top nationally in math and above the national average in reading, according to national test results released Thursday.

The National Assessment of Education Progress, known as the “Nation’s Report Card,” also shows Minnesota made some progress in eliminating disparities between white and non-white students. Commonly referred to as the achievement gap, the disparities have persisted in a state otherwise known for high student performance.

Minnesota’s fourth-grade students overall posted the best math scores in the nation. Within that larger group, black students in Minnesota posted the fourth-highest math scores among all black students in the country, after being the 22nd-best in 2011.

Overall, Minnesota fourth-graders posted the tenth-best reading scores in the country.

“We have made important progress. However, we still have much hard work ahead of us,” Gov. Mark Dayton said in response to the test scores. He and his education commissioner, Brenda Cassellius, said the gains vindicated their efforts to emphasize early learning — particularly a focus on improving literacy among third graders.

“It’s hard to raise expectations if we lessen our support to teachers and to classrooms and to students,” Cassellius said.

She added: “If we are going to be in an environment of cutting schools, that’s not going to work.”

Eighth-grade students of color did not post similar gains in math and reading scores, and Cassellius says the state will “double down” next year to focus on those students.

Eighth-graders are also tested in the National Assessment, which has traditionally been the primary vehicle for measuring academic performance between different demographic groups.

“We will no longer have to say we’re at the bottom,” Cassellius said.

Nationally, just 42 percent of fourth-graders and 35 percent of eighth-graders scored at or above the proficient level in math. In reading, 35 percent of fourth-graders and 36 percent of eighth-graders hit that mark.

While Minnesota eighth graders as a group did well overall — fifth best in the nation in math and 11th best in reading — they showed less improvement compared to 2011.

Additionally, the achievement gap between white and black students was starker among eighth-graders: fourth largest in the nation in math, and seventh largest in reading.

Cassellius said eighth-graders suffered more than their younger counterparts from declining state and federal resources for schools during lean state budget years in the last decade. State policy makers need to “double down on our eighth grade efforts,” she said.

Earlier this year, state lawmakers approved a $485 million spending increase for schools that Cassellius said would help in directing new resources “for those students who have not had the same support since preschool.”

House Republican Leader Kurt Daudt questioned whether simply spending more money was the key to boosting student achievement.

“If it was just funding — why did we see improvements at the fourth grade level but we didn’t see improvements at the eighth grade level? Those students saw the same number of dollars flowing into their classrooms,” he said.

(TM and © Copyright 2013 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2013 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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