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Scores from spring state exams dropped across all grades in Chicago Public Schools compared to 2019, but younger test takers fared the worst.

Marc Monaghan

Chicago’s youngest learners struggled on state exams, highlighting the pandemic's impact

New state test results for students across Illinois released Thursday offer a window into the academic toll of last year’s grueling pandemic school year.

In Chicago Public Schools, scores on the spring exams dipped across all grades but younger test takers struggled the most, according to the new school-by-school and district-level data released by the Illinois State Board of Education. About 18% of third graders met or exceeded standards in English and math this year, compared to 2019 when 39.4% were proficient in English and 32.9% in math. No standardized exams were given in 2020 at the onset of the pandemic.

Scores also dropped statewide, according to aggregate data released by the state on Oct. 29. Nearly 18% fewer students tested in third through 11th grade met grade-level standards in math than two years ago. For English, nearly 17% fewer students performed at grade level than two years ago. Black, Latino and low-income students showed the greatest academic losses, as is the case in other cities and across the country.

The state allowed schools to take annual standardized tests in the spring or fall. Some 90% of schools tested in the spring. Data for the remaining schools that tested this fall will be available in April 2022.

It’s important to note that significantly fewer students took the Illinois Assessment for Readiness, or IAR, the statewide assessment for third through eighth grade this year. In 2019, about 96% of students participated, but less than half of CPS’ eligible students took the test in the spring.

High school students in the district had a higher participation rate with the SAT college entrance exam of just over 86%. SAT scores also dipped in CPS as well, though not as dramatically as on the elementary exams. Some 23% of 11th graders met or exceeded standards in reading, down from 26% two years ago. For math, 21% met standards, down from 27% two years ago.

CPS schools like Payton, Jones and Northside had the top test results in the state, but they weren’t immune to a dip in scores, even if small. Other top achieving schools in the state, including Stevenson, New Trier and Hinsdale Central, also saw their scores decline slightly.

ISBE previously recognized that it may have been a challenge for districts to bring students back in the building for testing. CPS attributes the lower participation rate to the fact that many fully remote students didn’t participate on the scheduled in-school testing days. The U.S. Department of Education waived the 95% testing participation rate last year.

Adelric McCain is the director of equity and impact with the Network for College Success at the University of Chicago, which works with dozens of CPS schools. He says the data isn’t surprising. It should be an opportunity to prioritize what matters.

“We need to really focus on students’ social-emotional learning needs, to get them back into schools, and get them back into participation and full engagement, authentic engagement,” he said.

CPS says it recognizes the ongoing impact of the pandemic on its students.

“The District began this school year with an emphasis on supporting students academically as well as socially-emotionally while addressing the ongoing impacts of the pandemic on their educational experience,” the district spokesperson wrote in a statement. “The most important assessments for educators, students, and families during the school year are those closely connected to the curriculum.”

This year CPS launched Skyline, a culturally-responsive curriculum that offers regular assessments. The district says the assessments can offer information to improve instruction and learning. The district also says it has a goal of hiring 650 tutors this year, though the hiring process has been slow and some teachers tell WBEZ they need the extra help in their classrooms now. This is down from an original estimate of 850 tutors announced at the beginning of the year. The program known as Tutor Corps will focus on students on the South and West sides of the city.

CPS teachers this fall say they have confronted a range of issues coming off a year of remote learning and the economic and health effects of the pandemic, including unfinished learning or learning loss, social and emotional struggles and the loss of some social skills during remote learning.

The president of the Chicago Teachers Union blasted the release of the state test score data.

“It is utterly ridiculous to ‘grade’ school districts with false evaluations of effectiveness when everyone’s M.O. for the past year has been maintaining proper health, safety and sanity,” Jesse Sharkey said in a statement. “To grade any person, or any school district, under these circumstances is cruel, when the focus instead should be on providing the resources and supports our children and their families need to survive.”

Principal Seth Lavin of Brentano Math & Science Academy in Logan Square added that tests like the IAR aren’t necessary to tell educators that students struggled during the pandemic last year.

“Assessments are important, [but] state-mandated accountability testing is not that,” he said, referring to the IAR spring exam. “These test scores do not exist to give us information that helps us teach our kids better. These tests exist to rate schools and rate teachers, and sort kids and districts into categories for accountability reasons.”

He says IAR test results do not offer help to students or teachers in that given year. The scores during the pandemic or any year are not a quality indicator of the schooling experience.

“You have to get into the school,” Lavin said. “You have to talk to the teachers and talk to the school leaders and educators and parents and community. You have to see how the school shows up for the children.”

Illinois State Superintendent Carmen Ayala has previously said she wants to ease up on high-stakes testing in the state. “It’s too long, it’s too stressful for our students and it does not give the data that we need until months later,” she said.

Ayala says some more affluent school districts are already spending their own funds to administer more frequent testing with quicker results, which she says leaves lower-income districts at a disadvantage. She thinks a statewide overhaul could be more equitable. She’s proposing shorter tests, three times a year.

Parent Nicole Abreu was one of many CPS parents who decided to opt their children out of the test last spring.

“I really wanted and felt that what she needed was to focus on just being back in school and learning to be around people,” Abreu said .

Abreu has three young children in CPS. She didn’t feel the long exam was necessary for her then-third grader. Her daughter has disabilities, and she returned to school for the first time in spring. She said the school offered other assessments that she thought were more useful to her child’s education at the time.

“Standardized tests like [IAR], even in non-pandemic time, are often highly correlated with factors that are outside the scope of the school’s locus of control,” Abreu said. “I think that that’s only magnified with the pandemic.”

She thinks assessments can be an important tool for schools, but wonders how effective the IAR is, especially during a time when family priorities have shifted.

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

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