Illinois reading scores bounce back, but math scores remain below pre-pandemic levels

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Illinois public school students are continuing their slow recovery from the pandemic with improvements in English proficiency, a slight increase in graduation rates and more participation in advanced courses, according to state test data released Monday.

“This is a great sign for the state of Illinois that we are really back on track,” Illinois Superintendent of Education Tony Sanders said. “We certainly always want to see greater growth than what we saw this year, but this was significant growth, specifically in English Language Arts. Math, we still have more work to do.”

Nearly 35% of Illinois third through 11th graders scored at a proficient level in reading and writing on tests given last spring. This doesn’t match the nearly 38% rate from pre-pandemic 2019, but is higher than the 30% proficiency rate of the last two years. Illinois’ proficiency standard is higher than in most other states, Sanders noted.

But only 27% of students reached proficiency in math. The 2019 pre-pandemic rate was nearly 32%. Sanders said the state will likely start examining how it defines high-quality math instruction in order to spur improvement.

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Many students have struggled to recover from the disruptions caused by the pandemic in math in particular. Schools shifted to remote learning starting in March 2020 and some, including Chicago Public Schools, remained remote for most of the 2020-2021 school year.

These results are featured on the Illinois State Report Card, released Monday morning. The report card includes numerous metrics about each school and district in the state, as well as identifies which schools are performing well and which ones need improvement. Illinois third through eighth graders take the Illinois Assessment of Readiness exam and high school juniors take the SAT college entrance exam.

About 1.86 million students are enrolled in public schools, a slight decline from last year and about 10% less than a decade ago. Nearly half of all students in Illinois are considered low income.

The state saw the biggest jump in students learning English, known as English Language Learners, in five years. Sanders said this might be attributed to migrants and refugees coming to Illinois from Ukraine, Russia and Central America. Chicago has received thousands of migrants mostly from Venezuela and the increase in English Language Learners has helped stabilize the enrollment after more than a decade of steep decline.

And, while Sanders finds reasons to be optimistic, many student metrics remained lower than the year before the COVID-19. A continued area of concern is chronic absenteeism — students who missed 10 days of school or more last year. State officials say this is an important figure because studies show a high correlation between performance and time in school.

Chronic absenteeism has shot up dramatically since before the pandemic in 2019. It affects 28.3% of students, up from 17.5% in 2019. State officials say this is “alarmingly high” and that “more work must be done to ensure full academic and social-emotional recovery from the pandemic.”

Gaps remain amid stronger academic growth this year

Sanders noted progress among Black students, as well the need for more work. About 16% of Black students and 22% of Latino students in reading were deemed proficient, compared to 45% white and 63% Asian students. In math, 8% Black students were proficient and 14% Latino students.

But Black students demonstrated more growth on state tests in reading than any other racial or ethnic group, Sanders said. Student academic growth across the board accelerated more last year than it did in the year before the pandemic.

The state superintendent stressed that gaps in proficiency are because Black students historically attend schools with fewer resources.

student and teacher walk down school hallway The state will likely start examining how it defines high-quality math instruction in order to spur improvement. Ashlee Rezin / Chicago Sun-Times

“We educate Black students disproportionately in underfunded school districts with more teacher vacancies, higher teacher and principal turnover, higher chronic absenteeism,” he said.

But for the last five years the state has been increasing education funding and targeting new money to districts that are historically under-resourced under a new funding formula. Some $2.38 billion in new funding has been funneled to schools during this time, Sanders said.

“We lived for years under a funding system that was one of the most inequitable in the country and now we have one that for the last several years has directed resources to the districts and the students who need it the most,” Sanders said.

He said school districts have used that money, along with federal COVID relief dollars, to target supports for students of color, including lowering class sizes and introducing high-impact tutoring.

But many school districts that have seen significant growth in test scores among Black students have small numbers and few low-income students, state data shows. Frankfort Consolidated School District 157-C saw the highest growth in reading test scores among Black students of any other school district in the state.

Frankfort serves about 2,600 students and is located at the tip of southwestern Will County. Superintendent Doug Wernet said it has become increasingly diverse in recent years. Since 2010, the percentage of white students has decreased by 10%, while the number of Black and Latino students increased. Its percentage of low-income students has stayed at about 5%.

“So as a district philosophically, we ensure that rigor doesn’t decrease based on any preconceived notion about performance or ability by any one subgroup,” he said. “And so by holding the best instructional lessons and ensuring that the kids that are in front of the teachers are getting what they should for their grade level, we help them rise to that challenge. So we don’t lower the expectations.”

Wernet said it also helped that the district returned to in-person learning during the pandemic before many others in the state.

The quick return to in-person learning is one reason Wernet thinks the reading test score gap is so relatively small. The difference in performance among Black and Latino students and white students is less than 10 percentage points. As is the case in the rest of the state, Asian students outperform all other groups.

In math, however, there remain some significant differences. Wernet said math is skill specific and students often only practice those skills in school. “Either you get it or you don’t,” he said. However, children are exposed to literacy in many places outside the classroom.

Promising signs for high school students

Illinois’ high school graduation rate reached its highest level in 13 years, at 87.6%, though that’s only slightly higher than last year. Graduation rates did not suffer during the pandemic.

high school students sitting in classroom and smiling Sophomore students sit in their American contemporary issues class at Kenwood Academy High School on the South Side on Aug. 21, 2023. Ashlee Rezin / Chicago Sun-Times

Sanders said the ninth grade on-track rate also went up this year. Studies have shown that students who are on track with passing grades and no more than one F as freshmen are significantly more likely to get their diploma.

Composite SAT scores are about the same as last year but still below 2019 levels, according to updated data from the Illinois State Board of Education. This year, the average composite score for the state is 961. The average was 995 in 2019. All juniors in the state take the SAT, but it may be less important to students because most colleges and universities are now test optional.

Sanders said there are other highlights that speak to the experience students are getting in high school. The number of students taking advanced classes, such as AP or dual enrollment classes (college classes taken in high school) is going up. Also, an increasing number of young people are participating in career and technical education programs, where they are trained in such professions as health care and manufacturing.

Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on @WBEZeducation and @sskedreporter.

Nader Issa covers education for the Chicago Sun-Times.

This story was changed to reflect an updated 2023 SAT composite score from the Illinois State Board of Education.

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