Fox Valley schools' report card shows declines, but leaders cite factors from the pandemic

  • Alexander Nunez works a math problem in his fourth-grade class Wednesday at Garfield Elementary School in Elgin.

      Alexander Nunez works a math problem in his fourth-grade class Wednesday at Garfield Elementary School in Elgin. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 12/11/2021 5:18 PM

Mirroring a statewide trend, schools across the Fox Valley saw steep declines in students' English and mathematics proficiency during the pandemic-impacted past school year.

Yet, the latest school- and district-level results from the 2021 Illinois Report Card are not comparable to pre-pandemic years for several reasons and can't be used as a yardstick for student performance, educators say.

 

Among those factors is that not all students took the standardized tests typically administered each spring -- the Illinois Assessment of Readiness and SAT college entrance exams. They are mandatory for students in third through eighth grades and 11th grade, respectively, in a typical school year.

In addition, a strained learning environment with schools shifting between a hodgepodge of remote and hybrid in-person instructional models, as well as poverty and language barriers, were major challenges affecting performance.

Schools statewide received a waiver for state assessments in the 2019-20 school year, when the COVID-19 pandemic first disrupted learning, closing schools in March 2020. There is no data available for that year.

In Elgin Area School District U-46, which crosses into Cook, DuPage and Kane counties, only 19% of students met or exceeded standards in English language arts on the Illinois Assessment of Readiness in the 2020-21 school year compared to 28% in 2018-19. And only 18% of students at the state's second-largest school district met or exceeded math standards in 2021 compared to 27% in 2019, preliminary spring testing data show.

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That's in line with the statewide trend for most schools showing declines in students attaining proficiency in English and math across grade levels -- 16.6% and 17.8%, respectively.

However, only half of U-46 students in third through eighth grades were tested in the spring, when they were split between remote an in-person learning, U-46 Assessments Coordinator Matt Raimondi said.

Gisselle Moreira works with her fourth-grade math class at Garfield Elementary School in Elgin. Elgin Area Unit District 46 schools were among those that struggled to help students meet proficiency standards over the pandemic.
  Gisselle Moreira works with her fourth-grade math class at Garfield Elementary School in Elgin. Elgin Area Unit District 46 schools were among those that struggled to help students meet proficiency standards over the pandemic. - Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

On the SAT, 27% of U-46 students met or exceeded standards in English and 24% met or exceeded math standards in 2021. That's compared to 27% in English and 25% in math in 2019. And again, only about 70% of students took that test, Raimondi said.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"We're really hesitant ... to use the results for any kind of high stakes just because there's so many factors that were influencing that data," Raimondi said.

While individual students' results might be useful for teachers and parents in assessing learning growth or slide, it's hard to gauge how students performed overall by grade level, said Laura Hill, U-46 director of assessment and accountability.

Test participation was much higher at some neighborhood elementary schools where a majority of students walk to campus, Hill said. At Garfield in Elgin, for example, participation was more than 90%, and Ontarioville in Hanover Park, it was 82%.

But even parity in the demographics of both schools didn't produce similar results.

At Garfield, students who met English standards were at 11% for both 2019 and 2021. But math actually improved, going from 11% meets and exceeds in 2019 to 15% in 2021. The school's students are 95% low-income and 75% English learners.

Yet at Ontarioville, students meeting standards in 2019 and 2021 dropped from 20% to 10% in English and from 23% to 5% in math. Students there are 83% low-income and 81% English learners.

But there's a lot the report card data isn't telling educators about how students adapted to the pandemic learning environment. And, Hill added, it might take two or three years before students are back on track from any pandemic setbacks.

While Batavia Unit District 101's scores did not dip as dramatically as those in some Fox Valley districts or the state, officials there say they don't feel the 2021 scores are indicative of student mastery of standards typically seen in classrooms.

"There was a multitude of variables at play last year, including different learning modalities, instructional constraints and social impacts from the mitigation strategies that needed to be enacted in our schools," said Brad Newkirk, chief academic officer. "These variables certainly had an impact on our scores."

A student works on a math problem Wednesday at Garfield Elementary School in Elgin. More than 90% of students at the school took the state's standardized test in the spring and performed reasonably well considering pandemic constraints, officials said.
  A student works on a math problem Wednesday at Garfield Elementary School in Elgin. More than 90% of students at the school took the state's standardized test in the spring and performed reasonably well considering pandemic constraints, officials said. - Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

Local data showed there was a "schooling loss" last year, particularly among English learners and students struggling with poverty who were more negatively affected than other groups on state and local tests, Newkirk said.

In Algonquin-based Community Unit District 300, students who participated in the Illinois Assessment of Readiness saw a 12% decrease in English proficiency and 11% for math. Only two-thirds of students took the test during the 2020-21 school year. Of the students who took the SAT test, the district saw a 4% decrease in English proficiency and an 11% dip in math.

"To have such minimal slippage really speaks to the metric of persistence," Deputy Superintendent Kara Vicente said.

Despite the pandemic challenges, there were some silver linings.

Jacobs and Dundee-Crown high schools saw minimal decreases in English scores from 2019. Eastview Elementary in Algonquin outperformed the district in English by 18 percentage points on the state test, and Neubert Elementary in Algonquin performed well on math at 20 percentage points higher than the district average.

To mitigate the learning slide ahead of this school year, District 300 offered summer classes to address targeted math and English standards.

"An early indicator of our student success came this past fall when we administered our benchmark assessment, i-Ready, and learned that our students were in line with national patterns of placement," Vicente said. "District 300 students actually demonstrated a summer learning gain in reading that outperformed the national trends."

The district also added support personnel in elementary classrooms to address foundational learning skills that may not have been fully developed due to the pandemic. And it hired intervention teachers at the secondary level to address specific learning gaps.

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