Lower scores, high absenteeism, more teachers: A first look at how pandemic affected state's students

  • Crissa Almughrabi teaches a dual language kindergarten class at Nature Ridge Elementary School in Bartlett. Last school year's remote learning environment adversely affected students across grade levels, and disproportionately hurt Black, Latino and English learners.

      Crissa Almughrabi teaches a dual language kindergarten class at Nature Ridge Elementary School in Bartlett. Last school year's remote learning environment adversely affected students across grade levels, and disproportionately hurt Black, Latino and English learners. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

Updated 10/29/2021 4:27 PM

Preliminary state data released today confirms what many educators and parents predicted about the pandemic-impacted 2020-21 school year, but it's not without hopeful signs.

Statewide, chronic absenteeism worsened, fewer students met grade-level expectations in English language arts and mathematics, and the effects of remote learning were hardest on minority students and English language learners, according to preliminary and partial 2021 Illinois Report Card data released Friday morning.


Even so, participation in Advanced Placement classes remained strong, and the number of full-time teachers increased, particularly teachers of color, this first glimpse at how students performed during the COVID-19 pandemic shows.

Preliminary spring testing data from most schools statewide shows steep declines in students attaining proficiency in math and English language arts across grade levels -- 17.8% and 16.6%, respectively.

Among English learners, the decline in meeting standards was stark: 51.5% in English language arts and 54% in math. Similarly, low-income students saw a 31% drop in English and 38.7% dip in math, while special needs students saw declines of 30.4% in English and 23.5% in math.

The data shows larger decreases in proficiency among younger students than among older students, as the younger ones likely struggled more to engage in remote learning than their older peers, officials said.

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Last spring, students in 90% of schools statewide took the state's standardized test -- the Illinois Assessment of Readiness administered to third- through eighth-graders -- and the SAT college entrance exam. The remaining 10% of schools elected to administer the tests this fall, taking advantage of a state extension.

The report card data released Friday didn't include district- and school-level results from spring state tests. Those results will be partially released on Dec. 2.

Fewer students

The data released Friday also shows a 2.5% drop in student enrollment statewide due to the pandemic and a 21% rise in chronic absenteeism -- one in five students missing 10% or more of the school year -- over 2019. Chronic absenteeism was highest among English learners, and Latino and Black students.

Overall, public school enrollment declined by nearly 70,000 students last school year -- a 3.6% drop from the previous year, including the 2.5% attributed to the pandemic. That trend is in line with other states according to Education Week, said Brenda Dixon, research and evaluation officer for the Illinois State Board of Education.


"We saw the greatest percentage decreases in pre-K and kindergarten enrollment, with pre-K enrollment dropping 17% and kindergarten enrollment dropping 8%," she said.

Yet, there were increases in student enrollment among Hispanics (1.5%), Asians (3.8%) and those of two or more races (2.6%).

College prep

More students took college and career preparation courses last school year, including dual-credit, Advanced Placement, and career and technical education courses.

"Even in the midst of a pandemic, students took academically rigorous classes to prepare for college and career," Dixon said. "Considering the circumstances that schools were operating under, this is really great news."

Illinois' four-year graduation rate for 2021 matched the most recently reported national average, 86%. In 2020, the state's graduation rate was inflated artificially to 88% due to a reduction of most graduation requirements by one semester.

Comparing 2021 to 2019, graduation rates remained stable across demographic groups, and Black students remained at the bottom at about 77% -- 4 percentage points lower than the national average. Ninth-graders on track to graduate dropped 5 percentage points from the 2019-20 school year to 2020-21 due to an increase in failing grades, while eighth-graders passing Algebra 1 dipped 5.9 percentage points, the data shows.

Remote learning

Last school year's remote-learning environment hurt student learning, particularly among Black and Latino students, and English learners, educators acknowledged.

"More than 90% of Illinois students started the school year without access to fully in-person learning," State Superintendent of Education Carmen Ayala said. "Overall, we have significant work ahead of us to help students recover academically from the pandemic, but we are very confident we have the funding and the talent in our schools to climb that hill, and that we have the mitigations in place to ensure safe in-person learning for all students."

Ayala urged schools to use federal pandemic relief funds for interventions, especially for ninth- and 10th-graders who are not on track for graduation.

"We have received close to $8 billion in federal pandemic relief funding to address the gaps that resulted from remote learning," Ayala said.

Silver linings

Among the few silver linings in the data was an increase in the number of full-time teachers statewide by almost 2,000 educators. New enrollment in teacher preparation programs also increased by 23%, with a 17% increase in completion.

Illinois schools also added more teachers of color last school year -- 1,251 additional Latino teachers and 184 more Black teachers. Latino and Black teachers now represent a greater proportion of the teacher workforce -- up from 5.6% and 5.8% respectively in 2016-17, to 7.9% and 6% respectively last year.

The state board has awarded $3.5 million for Career and Technical Education Pathways Grants to support 100 high schools in creating an educator pipeline, focusing on recruiting teachers of color.

This year, the agency is working with higher education institutions to develop plans for recruitment and retention of teachers of color. That includes allocating $2 million in federal pandemic relief funding to create affinity groups for teachers of color.

Teacher pay and retention also has increased. Teachers now earn $70,705 per year on average -- 3.9% more than in 2019-20 -- and 87% are staying in the profession -- a 1.4-percentage-point increase over 2020.

The complete report card, including all student achievement data, won't be available until next April. It won't include any growth data, because Illinois students were exempted from having to take state tests in the 2019-20 school year, nor will the performance results change summative designations for schools.

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