COVID-19 pandemic makes it hard for educators to measure student growth from previous year
The protracted coronavirus pandemic not only has disrupted schools and students in an unprecedented manner, but it's also made it difficult for educators to measure student growth from the previous school year.
The 2020 Illinois Report Card released Friday for the first time does not include comprehensive or reliable data on assessments, student/teacher attendance or graduation rates. Nor does it have designations for schools to indicate overall performance or percentages of low-income students, among other accountability metrics for the 2019-20 school year.
A statewide school shutdown last spring due to the COVID-19 pandemic made most student data from the 2019-20 school year either unavailable or incomplete, limiting year-to-year comparisons.
Illinois received a federal waiver and did not administer otherwise mandated state assessments in math, English language arts and science last spring. The state amended graduation requirements for students who matriculated last spring, and schools were urged to amend grading policies for ninth-graders on track. Illinois schools also weren't required to administer the annual culture and climate survey last school year.
The federal waiver allowed the state to not issue new summative designations, which indicate schools' level of performance. Each school received the same summative designation in 2020 as in 2019 with a name change. The "lowest-performing" designation now is labeled "comprehensive" and "underperforming" is now "targeted" to show the level of support each school will receive through the state's IL-EMPOWER program.
That essentially preserves the status quo for schools so they won't be penalized for a decline in student performance or participation caused by adjusting to a new remote learning environment.
"Everybody kind of got frozen where they were," said Fred Heid, superintendent of Algonquin-based Community Unit District 300. "It's hard enough to improve math and reading proficiency in a normal year. Now, when you are trying to do it remotely ... for all schools, it's important that they froze things to the extent that they could. Really we will get a better indicator (of student growth) at the end of this year depending on what will happen with testing."
The 2020 report card includes the second year of per-pupil spending broken down by school compared to the previous year, and for the first time, data from the Kindergarten Individual Development Survey results measuring students' developmental readiness in the first 40 days of kindergarten is included.
Advanced coursework is among the few areas on the 2020 report card not affected by the pandemic. The data show growth and higher-than-ever participation among high schoolers in college and career preparation courses.
More than 8,000 additional high school students took career and technical education, dual credit, Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses in the 2019-20 school year compared to the year before. Students last year took more than 14,500 more AP exams in high school than in the previous school year and earned a 70% pass rate -- two percentage points higher than the Class of 2019.
High school students also took about 70,000 dual-credit courses last school year -- an increase of about 6,000 courses from the year before -- and about 1,500 more students took career and technical education courses.
"These advanced courses offer opportunities for students to earn college credits in high school, making earning a degree more affordable or allowing students to take more advanced or elective courses in college," State Superintendent of Education Carmen Ayala said.
Ayala said state budgets for the 2020 and 2021 fiscal years included funding for fee waivers to reduce the cost of AP exams for low-income students. The state board of education's state plan for career and technical education also will help increase access to college and career preparation courses for historically underrepresented students.
At Elgin Area School District U-46, the state's second-largest school system, 2,995 students took AP classes last school year across all five district high schools. Officials said the district saw an increase in students taking AP exams, even remotely, and partly attributed that to the dual language program offering an AP Spanish language test.
Officials also noted growth in the number of students taking CTE courses, specifically automotive and welding, which are accredited courses that come with industry certification.
"We are extremely proud of the work that our students have, especially in these times of uncertainty and a lot of challenges," said Josh Carpenter, U-46 assistant superintendent for teaching and learning. "We're excited about the results that we've seen. It is extremely hard to be able to quantify the growth that our students have made over the past eight months. I would probably have an easier time trying to qualify it. ... Our students and our staff have really grown exponentially in ways that we probably can't sum up in a number."