Years of “tremendous” improvement in reading and math in Chicago Public Schools were wiped away during the pandemic as results reverted back to scores last seen more than a decade ago. That’s according to newly released results of a national test.
“It is sad to see,” said Bogdana Chkoumbova, CPS chief education officer. “So this will definitely require us to double down on our efforts.”
This is the takeaway from the results, released Monday, of big city school districts on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the Nation’s Report Card or NAEP. It measures the academic level of fourth and eighth grade students in reading and math by testing a representative sample.
Chicago Public Schools’ decreases mirror what happened across the county — declines the U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona called “appalling” and “unacceptable.” The number of students in the lowest category of achievement, “below basic,” grew in both reading and math and fourth and eighth grade. Below basic, according to NAEP, means students are not demonstrating the prerequisite fundamental skills they would need to be proficient in a subject.
Also alarming: Already significant gaps between white and Black, and white and Latino students, as well as poor students, widened. In Chicago, some gaps in particular subjects and grade levels were wider than they have been since the NAEP started publishing scores for big city school districts in 2002. Because only 4.4% of students in CPS are Asian, their results are not reported.
Some experts say there’s a connection between the length of time students spent in remote learning and learning loss. The vast majority of CPS students spent more than a year in remote learning, longer than in a lot of school districts.
But NAEP officials say they have yet to study whether the declines can be tracked back to time in remote learning. They also note other factors, such as death rates in communities, also affected student achievement.
Math scores were particularly alarming, both in Chicago and across the nation. They declined more than they ever had in the history of the national test, said Peggy Carr, associate commissioner for assessment for the National Center for Education Statistics, in a call Friday with reporters. Also, the declines were widespread, touching every city and state, income level and racial ethnic group.
Nationwide, one-quarter of fourth graders and 40% of eighth graders in math were “below basic.” Carr said the eighth grade scores are especially troubling as those students who took the test last year are now in high school, where they will be confronted with higher level math.
“They’re missing these important skills that will prepare them for careers in math and science and technology,” she said. “We need to be concerned about getting the students back on track so that they can be prepared for global competition in these areas, national competition in these areas. This is what they’re missing.”
In Chicago, 41% of fourth graders were below basic and 51% of eighth graders were considered below basic. CPS officials said they are not offering remedial classes in high schools, but instead are offering extra support, such as tutoring, to get students up to speed. Chkoumbova said experts say the emphasis should be on acceleration.
National average reading scores also fell, but large city school districts didn’t see significant changes from 2019 to 2022. Carr said this was a bright spot and that it was likely due to reading being a skill that can be reinforced at home.
Chicago’s reading scores did not take as dramatic a hit as math, but they still signal troubling rates of proficiency. Seventy-eight percent of CPS fourth graders are not proficient in reading, with 51% of them below basic. And 79% percent of eighth graders are not proficient in reading, with 39% below basic.
Scores had started to improve before the pandemic, hitting highs in 2015 and 2017, but had already started to trend downward before COVID-19.
Chkoumbova and Mary Beck, acting chief of teaching and learning, said district officials saw the trend and started implementing new literacy strategies in 2019. They said some of these strategies might have prevented even greater declines.
The results were especially disheartening in Chicago. Before the pandemic, city and school district leaders proudly touted impressive test score growth among students. Research out of Stanford University showed that between 2009 and 2014, CPS test scores improved at a faster rate than virtually any other school district in the country.
Stanford’s research was based on state exams, and it was confirmed by NAEP results that Chicago went from lagging behind other cities to seeing its students improve at a faster rate.
Chkoumbova said her goal is not to just reach where Chicago Public Schools was pre-pandemic, but to surpass those levels. She noted that Black and Latino students were performing below the levels of white students before the pandemic and that the work to narrow those gaps is ongoing.
Chkoumbova and Beck pointed to a long list of strategies and programs they’ve put in place to try to accelerate learning, from offering what is called “high dosage” tutoring to providing coaches to help teachers improve instruction.
Beck said the fact that Chicago Public Schools has come from behind before should put it in a better position to rebound now. The district is “primed and ready” to “rebound” and “reach higher,” she said.
Still, CPS officials said there was some other good news in NAEP results. Eighth grade Latino students and English Language Learners are outperforming their peers in other big cities, said Peter Leonard, director of student assessment for CPS.
Leonard said this is “tremendous progress.” Chkoumbova added that she would like to see this progress extend to Black and low income students, and she thinks that can happen by keeping class sizes low and having schools offer more afterschool programs and community services.
At the end of this month, state test scores will be published. According to the Illinois State Board of Education, math and reading scores have not rebounded to pre-pandemic levels, but students on average grew more academically than they did in the year before the pandemic.