'It's going to take time': Suburban schools see modest gains in achievement scores
As students returned fully to in-person learning during the 2021-22 school year, districts across the state worked to figure out how to make up for lost time and close the COVID learning gap.
That left many schools scaling up summer academic programs, tutoring, and employing reading and math specialists. Districts hired additional teachers to help better meet students at their level, and they brought in more counselors and social workers to address social-emotional learning needs.
Their efforts helped. Though student proficiency rates are not where they were in 2019, overall the state saw student growth in the 54th percentile for English language arts and in the 52nd percentile for mathematics, according to the 2022 Illinois School Report Card.
In 2019, student growth levels were in the 50th percentile for both subjects, and in 2021 they were in the 38th percentile.
Growth measures how much a student progresses in a year in comparison with other students at the same level in the same grade. Proficiency measures whether or not a student met a grade-level state standard for learning.
"This accelerated growth rate tells us we are on the right track," State Superintendent of Education Carmen Ayala said.
Proficiency levels in math, science and language arts saw slight improvements, but for the most part they have not returned to pre-pandemic levels. Ayala and other educators identified these as areas for improvement but warned that closing COVID learning gaps will take time.
"Students experienced a once-in-a-lifetime global pandemic that no other generation has seen since 1918," said Tony Sanders, superintendent of Elgin Area School District U-46, the state's second-largest district educating more than 35,000 students. "You can't dig your way out of this overnight. It's going to take time for us to make up for the lost learning and make up for the lost social-emotional learning that our kids experienced."
Other school officials echoed Sanders' sentiment, noting Illinois schools are not alone as they continue on the road to academic recovery.
"Schools across the country continue to see an impact on test scores from the spring as students recovered from learning loss due to the pandemic," said Stephanie Kim, communications coordinator for Northwest Suburban High School District 214. "It's going to take time for standardized assessments to reflect a full recovery."
With the daunting task of making up for two years of disrupted learning, educators across the suburbs approached the first year back to fully in-person classes with a focus on figuring out where students had fallen behind and helping them attain the skills needed to work toward grade-level standards.
For many districts that meant expanding tutoring programs, hiring reading or math specialists, pushing summer enrichment programs, and bringing in more counselors or social workers to help meet students' social and emotional learning needs.
Many expect to use the latest data from the state report card to help identify areas of need and develop plans for the coming year as they work to address learning gaps.
This year's report card also features the equity journey continuum, a new tool that helps school districts analyze student growth and equity. The continuum helps identify gaps in achievement and opportunities for students and teachers of color.
Many districts in the suburbs already have undergone equity audits and developed, or are in the process of developing, comprehensive plans focused on academic equity.
Gurnee-based Woodland Elementary District 50, for example, offers a Latino literacy project through which parents are provided with tools to support literacy at home. Parents are given books and materials to work on with their children over the course of several weeks.
To address underrepresentation of some student groups in the district's gifted and talented program, officials will work with a team from Northwestern University to audit advanced academic programs and review recommendations to help diversify them, said Steve Thomas, associate superintendent of teaching and learning with equity.
While the state saw modest increases in proficiency rates in the lower grades, it hit a 12-year high with an 87.3% high school graduation rate statewide. Gains in graduation rates among Black and Latino students over the last four years contributed to the increase, state officials said.
The percentage of ninth-graders on track to graduate in four years increased to pre-pandemic levels in 2022, with 86.6% of all ninth-graders on target to graduate in four years, state data show.
"Our graduation rate has not dipped during the pandemic, and that wasn't by accident," said Patrick McGill, executive director for teaching, learning, curriculum and pathways at Glenbard High School District 87, which saw some of the highest graduation rates in the state.
The district "doubled down" on efforts to keep students on track to graduate, McGill said. In addition to free SAT college entrance prep courses for juniors and an "AP Cafe" for students in Advanced Placement courses, district leaders focused on virtual and in-person tutoring, as well as increased summer school offerings and other supports.
Algonquin-based Community Unit District 300 saw its highest graduation rate in more than 10 years -- 95.9% districtwide. The district also had record-high participation in its Advanced Placement program, with 15.6% of all ninth-graders last year enrolled in an AP course and more than 2,600 AP exams completed.
While some states saw teacher shortages, Illinois added 2,500 new full-time teachers, including 500 Black and Latino teachers, last year. Teacher retention reached a nine-year high, with more than 87% of teachers returning to the same school.
Ayala attributed the growth to the state's efforts in increasing teachers' starting salaries. Suburban school districts also have started "grow your own" programs, introducing high school students to teaching, in the hopes of minimizing or staving off teacher shortages in future years.
"The state of Illinois has focused intently on strengthening our teacher pipeline, and all these efforts have paid off," Ayala said.
Ayala identified student absenteeism as one area of focus for the state. The state report card shows 30% of students statewide as chronically absent -- meaning they missed 17 or more days of school last year.
Absentee rates were higher across the state for students of color, low-income students and English language learners. Ayala noted states across the country saw similar absentee rates.
The Illinois State Board of Education has earmarked $12 million to help combat chronic absenteeism. Each of the state's Regional Offices of Education received from $180,000 to $1.2 million this fall to address absenteeism through truancy intervention services, including counseling, home visits, transportation and mentoring.
"This school year we have an opportunity and obligation to work toward addressing those challenges," Ayala said.
2022 Illinois School Report Card highlights• 87.3% graduation rate for Class of 2022: Highest in 12 years.
• Illinois students fell in the 54th percentile for growth in English language arts, vs. 38th in 2021, 50th in 2019.
• They fell in the 52nd percentile for growth in mathematics, vs. 38th in 2021, 50th in 2019.
• 30% of students chronically absent last year -- missed 17 days or more of the school year.
• 48% of Black students missed 17 or more days.
• 36% of Latino students missed 17 or more days.
• 2,500 full-time teachers, including 500 Black and Latino educators, added statewide.
Source: Illinois School Report Card