Illinois high schools see huge spike in number of AP exams taken since 2018, new data shows

The Illinois State Board of Education made its annual Report Card public Friday — though data was severely affected by the spring’s unprecedented school closures.

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Students in an Advanced Placement Spanish class at West Leyden High School.

Sun-Times Media

Last year’s graduating class of Illinois high schoolers took thousands more Advanced Placement exams than their predecessors and passed those tests at higher rates, newly released data shows.

The increase built on two years’ worth of gains in AP testing, which state education officials credited to Gov. J.B. Pritzker for budgeting for fee waivers to reduce the cost of AP exams for low-income students. That decision earned the governor national honors from the College Board, which administers AP exams.

The new figures come in the Illinois State Board of Education’s annual Report Card that assess metrics at all public schools in the state — a tradition that was severely upended by the spring’s unprecedented school closures because of the coronavirus pandemic. This year’s release covers the 2019-20 school year.

Most pieces of data that school communities look for every fall were unavailable or incomplete this year because most standardized tests weren’t administered, attendance was scattered when schools closed and school ratings were suspended. Graduation rates, dropout rates and other performance metrics were provided with the caveat that they were “calculated with concerns.”

In the AP exams category, the 2020 class took 278,400 tests through all four years of high school, a 14,500 increase over 2019 graduates. Students passed a little over 195,000 of those tests, a 70% rate, a 2% increase. The big jump in AP testing came the previous year, when that 2019 class took 100,000 more AP exams than the prior year’s graduates, in line with the state increasing fee waivers for many students.

“Illinois’ students and educators charted historic gains in college and career courses, despite the COVID-19 pandemic disrupting the school year,” State Supt. of Education Carmen Ayala said. “We still have more work to do to increase access among students of color, and equity is the central focus of our state plan for [career and technical education].”

The state’s public schools also grew their teaching force, employing 131,230 public school teachers last school year, up about 2,000 from the previous year, the biggest gain in seven years. The average teacher salary also increased by $1,000 to $68,083, while the average administrator salary went up $1,700 to $111,293.

Despite minor demographic changes — about 500 more Latino teachers than 2018-19 — more than four of every five teachers are white and three-quarters are women. Black and Latino teachers each make up 5.9% of the teaching force despite Latinos making up 26.6% of Illinois schoolchildren and Black students accounting for 16.6% of enrollment. Just less than half of students are white.

“While we have increased the number of teachers, the profession remains overwhelmingly white and female,” Ayala told reporters on a conference call this week. “We have seen only modest increases in the proportions of Hispanic and Asian teachers, which is great news, but we still have much more work to do.”

The number of teachers increased last year despite historic losses in student enrollment.

Even before the pandemic, Illinois public schools lost 27,500 students last school year, the state’s largest single-year enrollment drop in the 25 years’ worth of publicly available records, records show. There were 1,957,000 students enrolled in Illinois public schools last school year.

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