Post-pandemic data shows scores falling, but student growth accelerating
By PETER HANCOCK
Capitol News Illinois
SPRINGFIELD – Student test scores continued to fall last year but new data shows Illinois’ students are on the path to recovering from the learning loss that occurred during the pandemic.
Numbers from standardized tests administered last spring show steep declines in the percentage of students who met or exceeded state standards in English language arts and math compared to 2019, the last year tests were administered before the pandemic.
Those numbers were reported in the latest state report card, which the Illinois State Board of Education released Thursday. In addition to test results, the report card includes information on a wide range of education metrics such as graduation rates, class sizes and teacher qualifications. It offers statewide data as well as data on each district and school building.
But while proficiency rates were down across the board, State Superintendent Carmen Ayala said the amount of growth students are showing from one year to the next is improving, suggesting that strategies being used help students catch up in their academics are working.
ISBE devised a new metric this year to track growth rates. It involves measuring a student’s year-over-year change in scores in a particular subject and comparing that growth to a student in a prior year – in this case, 2019 – who started off with the same score. This year’s report card suggests students in 2022 showed greater growth than their academic peers in 2019.
“Now, proficiency rates are still not back to pre-pandemic levels, but this accelerated rate of growth tells us we are on the right track,” Ayala said during a media briefing on the report card.
Overall, only 27.4 percent of third graders in Illinois met or exceeded state standards in reading, down from 36.4 percent in 2019.
That’s considered an important metric because third grade reading skills are a strong indicator of future success in school. A 2010 study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that students who are not proficient in reading by third grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school than those who are proficient.
Typical questions on a third grade reading test would ask students to define a word such as “impatient” or “overwhelmed” as it’s used in a short story or article.
Likewise, eighth grade math proficiency is considered crucial to future success in what are called the STEM fields – science, technology, engineering and math.
Typical questions on an eighth grade math test would ask students to calculate how many gallons of paint are needed to cover a patio of certain dimensions or use the Pythagorean theorem to calculate the length of a trip between three cities.
Last year, only 23.1 percent of Illinois eighth graders scored proficient in math, down from 32.6 percent in 2019.
One positive sign in math performance was an increase in the percentage of eighth graders who completed Algebra I – 29.9 percent, compared to 28.8 percent the prior year – although it was still lower than the 30.6 percent reported in 2019.
“This metric is critically important because taking Algebra I by eighth grade is the gateway to STEM in college,” Ayala said. “If a student does not take Algebra I by eighth grade, then following the normal math course sequence … that student will not make it to calculus by the end of high school. And calculus is frequently a prerequisite for STEM majors in college.”
Although the overall percentage of students scoring at or above grade level may seem low, Ayala said that Illinois has some of the most rigorous standards for proficiency in the nation. The report card also noted that the four-year graduation rate in 2022 was 87.3 percent, the highest rate in 12 years, and that 64 percent of Illinois’ 2020 graduates enrolled in a post-secondary program within 12 months of graduating.
The college enrollment rate was down significantly from the 75 percent recorded for the class of 2016. State officials said that has been a nationwide trend that was exacerbated by the pandemic.
The standardized tests are required by state and federal law. Like most states, however, Illinois received a federal waiver from the requirement in 2020, when school buildings were closed due to the pandemic, and the participation rate in 2021 was far below normal. State officials cautioned against using either of those two years as a point of comparison on most metrics.
The report card showed academic declines across all racial and ethnic groups in both English language arts and math, but there were still large gaps between those groups.
For example, across all grades, preliminary data showed 39.4 percent of white students scored proficient in English language arts compared to 12.1 percent of Black students and 18.4 percent of Hispanic students. Asian students had the highest proficiency rate by far, at 58.6 percent.
In math, 35.6 percent of white students scored proficient compared to 6.8 percent of Black students, 13.5 percent of Hispanic students and 60.2 percent of Asian students.
One area where achievement gaps appeared to be closing, however, was high school graduation rates. The four-year graduation rate among Black students rose more than 1.5 percentage points, to 79.5 percent, while the graduation rate for Hispanic students rose 1.4 points, to 85 percent.
That was a major factor in the state’s overall growth in graduation rates because the rate for white students dropped half a point, to 90.4 percent.
There were also increases across the board in the percentage of ninth graders who were on track to graduate, and for Black and Hispanic students, those rates were above pre-pandemic levels.
“We know that the number one strategy to increase graduation rates is to intervene early with students who are not on track to graduate,” Ayala said. “The rate of ninth graders on track to graduate has bounced back to pre-pandemic levels after dipping in 2021.”
The Illinois report card came out the same week the U.S. Department of Education released results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP exams, often referred to as “the nation’s report card,” and many of the trends seen in Illinois were consistent with national trends.
NAEP is administered to a representative sample of fourth and eighth grade students across the nation. In 2022, the majority of states saw average scores decline in both reading and math compared to 2019. There was also an increase in the percentage of students scoring below the NAEP “basic” level.
Illinois fared better than many states on the NAEP exam in that there was no significant difference between average scores in 2019 and 2022 for both subjects and grade levels, with scores above the national average.
“This is the nation’s gold standard report card, and this demonstrates that our investments in learning recovery serve as a national model because they are working,” Ayala said. “Now, we have much work to do, but this is an important indication that our students are on track.”
Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government that is distributed to more than 400 newspapers statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.