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Illinois student test scores are in. They remain far below pre-pandemic levels in reading and math

Only 20% of elementary students in Chicago Public Schools scored at grade level in English language arts on average this year. Students are feeling the continued effects of the pandemic, which shut this school and others down for in-person learning for more than a year.

CHICAGO — Illinois students continue to perform far below pre-pandemic levels on state reading and math exams for a second year, test results released Thursday show, offering another sign of the ongoing toll of COVID-19 and remote learning. Students performed at roughly the same level as last year, which is well below the last round of testing before the pandemic in 2019.

Students in all racial and ethnic groups saw their scores drop since 2019, exacerbating historic achievement gaps between white and Asian students and students of color.

Proficiency rates for Illinois elementary students followed the trend of results on a national test known as the Nation’s Report Card released earlier this week. Statewide, about 20% fewer students who were tested met standards in English compared to 2019, and 2% fewer than 2021. About 19% fewer students who were tested met math standards compared to 2019, but remained level with 2021. There was no federally-mandated testing in 2020 at the start of the pandemic.

State education officials believe 2021 performance is actually worse than the official results show, which would suggest some improvement this year. That’s because of lower participation rates than normal and an overrepresentation of white students and an underrepresentation of students of color, they said.

Scores for students in Chicago Public Schools, the state’s largest district, mirror statewide trends, with proficiency rates far below 2019 levels. English pass rates for third grade, a crucial year for reading proficiency, only reached 17% on the Illinois Assessment of Readiness (IAR) test given to Illinois third to eighth graders.

In reacting to the scores, state education leaders downplayed a focus on achievement or proficiency levels and focused instead on student academic growth.

“The student could have started the school year multiple years behind grade level or already been on grade level. Proficiency doesn’t factor in that information,” State Superintendent Carmen Ayala said about the latest scores.

State data shows encouraging news when it comes to growth — students improved at an accelerated rate last school year. Students on average grew more this year, as measured by how they progressed on state tests, than comparable students did in the year before the pandemic.

“Unlike proficiency rates, which correlate strongly to family income and education levels, growth is highly responsive to factors like quality teaching, evidence-based interventions and school improvement efforts,” Ayala told reporters in a briefing this week. “This accelerated growth reflects the investments schools, districts and the state have made to get students back on track.”

Still, student growth statewide in 2022 lagged in seventh and eighth grade English and in eighth grade math. The state doesn’t know the reason behind the slowdown, but notes this could have been a time for transition for middle school students. Coming into a new building after remote learning could have been disruptive enough for some to slow growth.

Amid the difficult news, which includes elevated rates of absenteeism, state officials highlighted areas to celebrate. These include a 87% high school graduation rate, the highest in 12 years, as well as a strong 88% annual teacher retention rate.

The state’s average SAT total score of 960 was 34 points lower than in 2019.

What the pandemic wrought

In School District U-46, which covers Elgin and surrounding communities, Superintendent Tony Sanders said everyone is aware of the effects of the pandemic on student learning and well-being.

“We certainly are continuing to see the ramifications and the implications of more than two years of a pandemic and the impact that has had not just on U-46, but the state,” Sanders said.

The percentage of students meeting state standards in math and English remained below 2019 levels for U-46 students, but student growth on tests climbed back up close to pre-pandemic levels. But rather than compare scores from 2021, Sanders considers last school year a baseline when students first returned to in-person learning. There were still challenges with students and teachers regularly having to quarantine because of the spread of COVID-19. Still, he said recovery efforts gained momentum.

“We have teachers who have been trained on how to let students lead their own learning, using collaborative processes rather than the teacher standing and delivering the whole day,” he said of the district’s efforts. “We’re really pleased to see the results that that is starting to have. But early on, when the pandemic struck, our board of education said, ‘If our schools look the same as they did coming out of this pandemic as they did as we entered, then we’ve done something wrong.’ And we took that to heart.”

Chicago Public Schools

Test scores remained stubbornly low for For Chicago Public Schools students. For example, 44% of third graders ranked in the lowest proficiency category on the state’s English exam. That’s up from 26% in 2019. Overall, 20% of CPS third through eighth graders scored at grade level in English language arts, down from 27% three years ago.

Existing achievement or opportunity gaps also widened.

“The ones that had less even lost even more,” CPS CEO Pedro Martinez said at Wednesday’s Chicago Board of Education meeting

Martinez said the data was “very sobering” and that it was a reflection of the lasting challenges from the pandemic.

“It is not a reflection of our students’ ability. It is not a reflection of our staff’s hard work, but it is the challenges that our families faced during the pandemic,” he said.

But Martinez remains optimistic and said the district is strongly positioned for this year, one he’s dubbed a “recovery year.” He and other CPS leaders highlighted investments in core areas, including curriculum, instructional practices and student engagement.

“We know that parents and students are looking to us for supports and for finding solutions,” Chief Education officer Bogdana Chkoumbova said.

Investments include a tutoring corps of 660 tutors for individual or small group work in more than 232 schools and instructional coaches, particularly on the South and West side. They also highlighted a district-wide curriculum, Skyline, available to all schools, new support for teachers, and expanded arts, athletic and social and emotional programming.

“The resources are there,” Martinez told board members. “This work is long-term work.”

Chicago Public Schools officials are calling this a ‘recovery year.’ Manuel Martinez/WBEZ

Chronic absenteeism skyrocketed

The state report card also shows a drop in student attendance across demographic groups statewide. Black and Hispanic students were most impacted, with 48% of Black students and 36% of Hispanic students marked chronically absent. That’s when a student misses 10% of the academic year with or without a valid excuse. That’s 17 days or more.

It was even worse for CPS students. Just over 54% of Black students and about 44% of Hispanic students were chronically absent compared to 26% of white students in the district.

Missing so many days of school can be disruptive to learning, especially if it was a student’s first year back to in-person learning. Superintendent Ayala said there could be several factors driving the truancy, including students at home with COVID-19 or taking a mental health day. The issues in Illinois mirror a national trend. She said the state has allocated $12 million to address the problem.

“Each of our 38 regional offices of education and intermediate service centers, including Chicago Public Schools, received between $180,000 and $1.2 million to fund truancy intervention services such as counseling, tutoring, credit recovery, home visits, mentoring and transportation,” she said.

Teacher attendance also was affected last year. While the state was able to grow the teaching workforce and increase teacher retention, bucking national trends, one-third of teachers missed 10 or more days.

“Factors could have included COVID quarantine and isolation and having to take care of children in quarantine or isolation as well as other factors,” Ayala said.

School districts across the state, including U-46, found themselves in a bind without enough substitutes. Superintendent Sanders said he even had to fill in for a few classes.

“Every member of my team would substitute teach several days a week,” he said. “We had teaching coaches that were stepping in subbing. This year has gotten a little bit better because our illness rates are down a little bit.”

Still, the state is making efforts to increase the pool of subs by changing licensing requirements, including receiving licensure for free and being able to teach in the same classroom for longer periods of time.

“On the right track”

While the harsh realities of the pandemic loom large on the 2022 state report card, Ayala noted upward trends to suggest recovery is in motion. She highlighted the increased graduation rate for Black and Hispanic students.

“Like most schools across the country, Illinois schools have historically graduated Black and Hispanic students at lower rates than their white and Asian peers,” she said. “But in Illinois, the graduation rates for Black and Hispanic students have grown every year since 2018, jumping a total of 6% for Black students and 5.3% for Hispanic students.”

Looking ahead, the State Board of Education is keeping its focus on the student academic growth it saw 2022.

“We have much work to do, but this is an important indication that our students are on track,” Ayala said.

In Lincolnwood School District 74 in the northern suburbs, students made major gains this year, and saw a big boost in student academic growth on exams that topped its 2019 rate. Superintendent David Russo said the district is still trying to improve proficiency levels, but says recovery efforts are going well. He said it helped that the district was able to offer an early in-person option starting in the fall of 2020.

“We were getting back to a normal set of activities in the last third of last school year,” he said. “That was kind of our transitionary period. And now with the start of this new school year, we’re back to a full schedule of normal activities, from our athletics to our fine arts to our community events.”

Russo said the district used federal COVID-19 relief money on tutoring programs to target the most challenging areas, like larger gaps in math. They also bought additional curricular materials to help students.

“[Student] performance and their growth is certainly much more than their score on an assessment,” Russo said. “There’s so much growth that takes place, in terms of skills like perseverance, skills like adaptability, that don’t necessarily show up on an assessment report card.”

Susie An covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @soosieon.

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