Earlier this month, state Superintendent of Education John White trumpeted the fact that Louisiana public high school students showed greater gains this year in earning college credit than those in any other state except Massachusetts.

Less talked about was this footnote: The state still ranks near the bottom in the Advanced Placement program and was 50th for years.

"All indications are positive," White said a few days later when asked about national education indicators. "But we have to acknowledge the enormity of the challenge of competing with other states, given where we are are coming from."

The issue points at a long-standing problem in the state's bid to improve academic achievement in its public schools.

White and other state leaders regularly tout gains in AP credits, scores on the ACT — a test of college readiness — and the state's all-time record high school graduation rate of 77.5 percent.

But despite those and other gains, Louisiana ranks near the bottom in the key education indicators that families and companies look to when gauging the health of its public school system.

Even with improvements since 2009, Louisiana fourth-graders ranked 43rd in the U.S. in reading and 45th in math for 2015 on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the nation's report card.

The snapshot for eighth-graders is even bleaker — 48th in reading, 49th in math.

Earlier this year, Education Week magazine said Louisiana ranks 49th in the nation in academic achievement, its second consecutive year in that spot.

WalletHub, a personal finance website, listed the state's public school system at 51st, below even the District of Columbia.

Education leaders say both stories are true and that Louisiana has been so far behind in the quality of its public schools for so long that even significant gains in the past two decades leave the state well behind most of its peers.

"Over the past 50, 60, 100 years, we have dug a deep hole," said Jim Garvey, president of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. "It takes a while to get out of a deep hole."

The state's latest bid to improve its public schools began about 20 years ago.

One of the first waves of changes, high-stakes tests for fourth- and eighth-graders aimed at ending decades of social promotions, sparked years of controversy.

However, efforts to make students, schools and teachers more accountable have paid dividends, even if ACT scores and high school graduation rates remain well back of the pack nationally.

Jeff Gagne, policy director for the Southern Regional Education Board in Atlanta, said small but steady gains like those in Louisiana, including the state's high school graduation rate, are the way to go.

"What you want to see is a point, two points every year," Gagne said. "We are all about incremental improvement."

Part of the problem, he said, is that other states are improving at the same time.

"All of the states in our region have made substantial progress in the past 25 to 30 years," Gagne said. "When they are all rising, closing the gap is much tougher."

The way the state measures its schools often ranks near the top nationally, and New Orleans' transformation since Hurricane Katrina into something of a charter school laboratory has gained national attention.

Making public school students competitive nationally in basic academics, however, remains a herculean task in a poverty-stricken state.

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"Our progress is always measured against other states, and other states are very serious about improving their educational systems," said Pearson Cross, a political scientist at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

"So it is a moving target," he said. 

"For us to really move up in the rankings, we have to start doing markedly better than the states that are currently ahead of us," he said. "That is where the problem comes in."

White made a similar point about Advanced Placement, which allows high school students to earn college credit if they score high enough on rigorous exams.

Just before he became state superintendent, only 4.6 percent of public school students in Louisiana earned AP credit — near the bottom of the states — compared with 26.4 percent in Maryland, tops in the nation.

"And they are working to grow their AP as fast as possible, too," White said.

Others contend the state's educational progress is stalled because of years of misguided programs.

Scott Richard, executive director of the Louisiana School Boards Association, said school choice, charter schools, vouchers, new standards, public school letter grades and other steps were all touted as answers.

"Education reforms have been pitched and adopted seemingly year to year on the promise that they would make public education great in Louisiana," Richard said in an email response to questions.

"Have these so-called reforms pushed by out-of-state groups attempting to reinvent education made us great?" he asked, implying the answer is no.

Richard said the state should focus on early childhood education, smaller class sizes, literacy and numeracy emphasis, and safe learning environments.

Others said shrinking state aid for public schools has hindered the effort to move up nationally.

The formerly routine 2.75 percent annual increase in state dollars for public schools has become a rarity.

"I don't think the public understands that every time you don't get 2.75 percent, you are losing ground," Cross said.

Roughly two out of three public school students in Louisiana qualify for free and reduced-price lunches, one of the highest rates in the U.S.

"The problems, the issues in Louisiana are big, and poverty is a huge issue," said Gagne, a former aide to ex-Gov. Mike Foster. "So it is taking a lot longer."

State Sen. Conrad Appel, R-Metairie and former chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said the state needs to stick with its push for high expectations, parental choice and accountability to reverse decades of low achievement.

"If we don't stick with those principles, we are never going to see it," Appel said.

Former BESE President Chas Roemer, a White ally, said upgrading Louisiana's public school system is a massive job.

"We have been 50th for the most part for 25 years," Roemer said. "We have failed our students for multiple generations."

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.