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Early results from this spring’s state test suggest Chicago students are still struggling

A high school student sits at a black table taking an exam with a yellow No. 2 pencil. Two students sit at black tables behind her taking an exam.

Chicago school leaders and educators got earlier access to Illinois Assessment of Readiness results this spring.

SDI Productions / Getty Images

The fight to rebuild school communities after years of pandemic-era uncertainty.

Chicago teachers and principals got an early look at Illinois state test results in recent weeks — and what they saw was sobering.

According to the preliminary, unofficial scores obtained by Chalkbeat, 15% of the district’s third through eighth graders who took the test this spring met state standards in math, and a fifth of students met standards in English language arts. Meanwhile, roughly a third of students in both reading and math scored near the bottom on the test. 

The data has not been verified by the state, which will allow districts to submit corrections over the summer and release the numbers publicly this fall. Chicago Public Schools, which along with other districts shared the scores with school leaders in late May to help plan instruction for the fall, said it cannot yet provide data on the number and demographics of students who took the test this spring. Though testing conditions were more typical than in 2021, when school was virtual for most, the lack of participation data makes comparisons to previous years problematic.

Still, amid a dearth of districtwide metrics capturing where Chicago students stand academically post-COVID, the data offers a rare window into a reality district leaders have acknowledged: This was much less of a recovery year than they hoped it would be, when dealing with heightened student mental health needs, staffing shortages, and coronavirus surges sometimes overshadowed academics. In 2018-19, the year before the pandemic disrupted learning, almost a quarter of Chicago Public Schools students met or exceeded expectations in math, and 28% met or exceeded standards in language arts. 

“This data is not exactly a surprise, but it starts to quantify what everyone’s been talking about in a way that’s reliably linked to mastery of state learning standards,” said Paul Zavitkovsky, an assessment specialist at the Center for Urban Education Leadership at the University of Illinois Chicago.

A spokeswoman for ISBE said the agency has not yet received the data from Pearson, the test provider, making results “very, very preliminary.” Districts can submit data corrections to the agency during a window in July and August — “a crucial step for ensuring data accuracy,” the spokeswoman said. 

Chicago officials also cautioned that these results are still unofficial and could yet change and declined to comment on them. They noted about 14,000 student records, which account for almost 10% of students eligible to take the test, were not included in the districtwide results because they were missing information such as a student ID or a test score. A CPS employee shared the districtwide numbers with Chalkbeat. 

Some experts Chalkbeat spoke with said it’s fairly unlikely that the outcomes will change significantly as a result of the state’s verification process, particularly for a large district such as Chicago. However, some also stressed the lack of data on who took the test this spring — especially in light of enrollment declines and other pandemic-era disruption — makes comparisons to previous years unreliable.

Teachers unions and some parent groups in Chicago and statewide have sharply criticized the practice of administering standardized tests amid the pandemic, especially in 2021. They argue that the exams have added to the burden on students and educators without offering meaningful information about how students are doing. 

Outgoing Chicago Teachers Union president Jesse Sharkey said he remains skeptical of the tests’ value. 

“Who really benefits from ranking and sorting schoolchildren, when our students have been through extraordinary trauma and desperately need counselors, social workers, art teachers, special education teachers, teaching assistants, afterschool programs, and more?” Sharkey said in a statement. 

Chicago has vowed to step up academic interventions

The preliminary test scores for Chicago Public Schools show the percentage of students meeting standards declining markedly across grades in both math and reading since before the pandemic. The portion of students who scored in the lowest of five categories — “did not yet meet expectations” — increased to about a third of students in both English language arts and math. 

The setbacks on the test are especially pronounced for grades three, four, and five, notes Zavitkovsky. That’s troubling, he said, because those grades are a crucial time for mastering foundational skills before students enter middle school, with its emphasis on more complex subject matter.

“The implication here is that without deep instructional interventions at the middle school level that have been very difficult to achieve under the best of conditions, the likelihood of learning recovery for kids now entering the middle school years is pretty low,” he said. 

In Chicago, district officials have said that the challenges of responding to two COVID surges this school year got in the way of tackling academic recovery in earnest. They plan to step up such efforts in the coming school year, including by staffing more interventionists — educators who work with struggling students one-on-one or in small groups — and investing in professional development. The district is putting more dollars in an in-house tutoring program that confronted hiring challenges in 2021-22.

Typically, nearly all students in grades 3-8 take state tests, which were canceled nationwide in 2020. Zavitkovsky did not put much stock in Illinois’s 2020-21 results, when about 68% of eligible students statewide took the assessment — a group that was disproportionately white. Overall in Chicago, 16% of students who took the test last year met standards in math and 21% did in reading.  

However, he said with students across the state back learning in person full-time, this spring’s results are a more valid measure of the pandemic’s damage and offer districts some insights on where to focus their recovery efforts.

Zavitkovsky said the data cleanup over the summer largely involves correcting student demographic data and accounting for transfers that can affect individual campus results. But he said districtwide results coming directly from the testing provider should be fairly reliable.

Elaine Allensworth of the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research said while she would not rule out future changes to Chicago’s preliminary scores, those changes are usually small. 

She noted another potential factor in the score declines: changes to the district’s accountability process. Both educator and campus evaluations are on hold as the district rethinks how it measures both, and with less pressure to perform well, scores tend to slip somewhat.

Derek Briggs, who leads the Center for Assessment, Design, Research and Evaluation at the University of Colorado in Boulder, said he, too, believes it would be unlikely for the districtwide results to shift significantly, thanks to an approach called “pre-equating” that allows for reporting results quickly with a higher level of confidence. 

However, he said the absence of data on test participation means this spring’s numbers are now lacking crucial context. Not only is data on the portion of eligible students who took the test missing, but it’s also unknown whether the cohorts of students who took the test in 2018-19 are still around. And with massive pandemic-era enrollment losses in urban districts such as Chicago, the test-takers of this spring are likely a smaller, different group. 

“We expected COVID to have a negative effect on learning,” Briggs said. “But these scores might not accurately capture that because we don’t know if we are comparing apples to apples.”

Nationally, there is some evidence that this past spring saw a return to more normal participation and testing procedures, at a time when nearly every school in the country was open for in-person learning. But in Chicago, there is no solid data, and quarantines for students who tested positive for COVID and unvaccinated close contacts might have added a wild card.

Early results helped school leaders plan

Some district leaders and others have complained for some time that they receive results from the IAR, which the state considered replacing but decided to keep this year, too late during the year to make them relevant to efforts to strengthen instruction. This spring, Pearson gave districts early access to the preliminary results. 

Chicago Public Schools turned over the preliminary scores to principals May 31. The district’s office of teaching and learning also hosted workshops for school staff on making use of the scores in instruction.

“This is the fastest release of preliminary data in recent memory by the Illinois State Board of Education of the Illinois Assessment of Readiness testing results,” the district said in a statement. “The early release of preliminary IAR results will allow the district and school teams to begin an early plan for academic support in the coming school year.”

One principal, who spoke with Chalkbeat anonymously without authorization to discuss the scores, said the early release of the data was extremely helpful. Educator teams at various grade levels pored over scores for their grades and for individual students, rallying around plans to address gaps when school resumes in late August. 

For example, the English language arts test revealed that some students’ struggles with writing — what that principal described as one of the legacies of learning remotely — were hampering their learning. Teachers made a plan to step up work on those skills in the fall. 

“It was really worthwhile to have this information and share it with teachers so they can make adjustments in the fall,” the principal said.  

Still, this principal said it was discouraging to see the districtwide results, which the principal said suggest the district did not do enough this school year to help students catch up academically. Students urgently need added instruction, especially in reading, but staffing shortages, including an ongoing dearth of trained tutors, and educators too exhausted and burned out to take on after-school work are getting in the way.

“I worry about the long-term effects,” the principal said.

Mila Koumpilova is Chalkbeat Chicago’s senior reporter covering Chicago Public Schools. Contact Mila at mkoumpilova@chalkbeat.org.

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