Student test scores in Illinois plummet, offering first broad measure of the pandemic’s impact

Far fewer students tested at grade level this spring than two years ago before the pandemic. Public school enrollment also is down statewide.

Nearly 17% fewer Illinois public school students performed at grade level in English than they did two years ago, new state data shows. Marc Monaghan / WBEZ
Nearly 17% fewer Illinois public school students performed at grade level in English than they did two years ago, new state data shows. Marc Monaghan / WBEZ

Student test scores in Illinois plummet, offering first broad measure of the pandemic’s impact

Far fewer students tested at grade level this spring than two years ago before the pandemic. Public school enrollment also is down statewide.

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Significantly fewer Illinois students met English and math standards on state tests this year, according to preliminary data released by the Illinois State Board of Education on Friday, providing the first broad look at the pandemic’s effect on academics.

Nearly 18% fewer students met grade-level standards in math than they did 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.

Enrollment in public schools also saw its largest drop since 2007, the last year the state provided records. Nearly 70,000 fewer students enrolled this year compared to last year.

“This impact, and the disproportionate impact on our Black and Hispanic students, along with English learners, is why we continue to do everything possible to keep our students learning fully in person this year,” Carmen Ayala, state superintendent of education, said during a briefing with reporters.

Educators blame the impact of the coronavirus pandemic for the lower scores, the enrollment decline and higher absenteeism. These declines mirror national trends, but this is the first statewide data available in Illinois. There were no standardized tests given in 2020.

Most students in third through eighth grade took the Illinois Assessment of Readiness exam this spring while 11th graders took the SAT college entrance exam. About 90% of school districts administered the elementary assessment; the remaining 10% chose to give the test this fall. Full state and school level results will be available in December.

Why scores are down

Ayala said Black and Hispanic students were disproportionately impacted by remote learning, a finding that tracks with what’s happening in other states and school districts. These are populations hardest hit by COVID-19 infections and in many cases economic disruption. Ayala also said students with limited English were heavily impacted by the remote learning. Learning from home meant that students weren’t using English as much as they would have at school, she said.

“You also have an assessment that is in English, which truly may or may not reflect what the students know and can be able to do,” Ayala said. “I think the pandemic really had an impact on the English learner because the environment in school from which they can learn English as a second language was interrupted.”

In addition, many Illinois students were not learning in-person full-time when the spring assessments were given. It was up to schools how to navigate administering the in-person exams.

“Because there were no remote options, there were difficulties with … different situations locally with administering assessments,” said Sean Clayton, director of assessment for ISBE. “That may have impacted participation rates.”

In South suburban Dolton, students stayed remote all last year. District 148 is among the 10% of districts statewide that are testing this fall. Supt. Kevin Nohelty said the fall testing will help the district to assess students at two points in the same school year — this fall and again in the spring. After doing internal assessments and knowing the challenges students faced during remote learning, he’s not expecting academic growth from 2019.

“But what I do realize is that our kids are very resilient,” he said. “Our kids will bounce back from this loss of learning.”

At Glenbard District 87 in the western suburbs, high school students were back in person to take the SAT in the spring. Supt. David Larson says the district offered a 10-week test prep program, which appeared to help many students. But he said scores took a small dip compared to the previous year.

“We sort of predicted where they landed,” said Larson. “We’re going to continue to work hard, and we feel very good about the instruction that we provided and what we accomplished despite the constraints.”

Larson said numerous home visits from teachers and administrators during remote learning played a big part in helping students hold steady in their academics and attendance. The district offered summer school programs, virtual tutoring and more rigorous classes, such as Advanced Placement courses.

Issues with enrollment and absenteeism

Public school enrollment statewide dropped by 3.6% this year, significantly higher than what the state expected. Given the historic declining enrollment trend in Illinois, state education anticipated a 1.1% decrease.

This year, the largest enrollment drop was in pre-K and kindergarten. Ayala said the state is working to boost enrollment in those younger grades.

“The campaign will address barriers to enrollment and ensure that families know how important preschool and kindergarten are, and that it is safe for children to attend,” she said.

Statewide, families reported switching to private school or homeschooling during the pandemic. But the state couldn’t say if these trends had a significant impact on overall enrollment. Those factors, as well as families leaving for the suburbs or moving out of state, contributed to lower enrollment in Chicago Public Schools this fall.

Chronic absenteeism also went up across the state, from about 17% in 2019 to 21% in 2021. Students are considered chronically absent when they miss 10% or more of the school year with or without valid reasons. The state said the rates are calculated “with concern,” meaning standard attendance could not be applied given the varied learning options of the past year and a half.

Bright spots

Despite the grim academic picture, ISBE notes some bright spots. The teacher retention rate increased, and more school positions were filled. The state says the gains reflect its efforts to recruit more teachers within the state.

“We continue to hear how difficult teaching during the pandemic is and continues to be,” said Ayala. “The Illinois State Board of Education has dedicated significant resources to meet teachers’ needs for more support.”

The average teacher salary saw a small bump from the previous year. Ayala said the state has offered teachers free virtual sessions on self care and trauma-informed practices, as well as mentoring and coaching programs to increase retention.

In another highlight, more students are taking classes for dual college credit and enrolling in advanced placement and career technical education courses, according to ISBE.

“Even in the midst of a pandemic, students took academically rigorous classes to prepare for college and career, considering the circumstances that schools were operating under,” said Brenda Dixon, research and evaluation officer at ISBE.

The state’s four-year graduation rate remained the same as in 2019, at 86%.

Ayala said having students in schools this year means they can begin to recover. The state received $7.9 billion in federal COVID-19 relief funds for schools. Districts have been using those funds to offer extra tutoring, after-school programs and additional mental health support.

Edward Podsiadlik is a clinical associate professor at the College of Education at the University of Illinois Chicago. He works with teachers and says it’s important for schools to recognize that the pandemic is still not over and some are still dealing with trauma.

“I can’t help thinking that since the pandemic and the quarantining, there has been so much loss,” he said. “Loss in terms of human life, loss in terms of a sense of security, loss in terms of an increased, heightened sense of vulnerability.”

Podsiadlik said there’s more behind the numbers, and this is a pivotal moment in education. More attention is being paid to the different ways students learn and their mental health needs. There are more efforts to address teacher burnout. He said there’s more money now to try innovative things to address those needs.

“I have tremendous hopefulness that some of these larger concerns of plummeting scores and things like that will work themselves out,” he said. “If we do this right, we will be better for it.”

Supt. Nohelty in Dolton says he’s choosing to be patient and isn’t placing a hard goal for the end of the school year.

“It would be a pleasant surprise if I saw substantial growth,” he said. “But in the end, I want to ensure that we’re delivering an exceptional educational program for our kids that not only hits their minds, but their bodies and their spirits.”

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