Student absences rose, test scores dropped during pandemic, new Illinois report card shows

The report released Friday reflects the significant impact of remote learning and the pandemic on student enrollment, attendance and academic achievement.

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Results of the 2021 Illinois Report Card — which looked at the impact of the pandemic on education — were released Friday.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Illinois schools saw higher rates of chronic absenteeism and lower test scores last year, though graduation rates remained steady, according to the state’s latest school report card.

The data for the 2020-21 school year, made public Friday, shows the significant impact of the pandemic on student enrollment, attendance and academic achievement.

One in five Illinois students was chronically absent last year, missing 10 percent or more of the year, with or without a valid excuse — a 21% increase from the 2018-19 school year.

Illinois public schools also experienced a dip in enrollment. Nearly 70,000 fewer students, or 3.6 percent, enrolled statewide. In Chicago, the school system lost 11,000 students this year.

Early education has driven enrollment declines. The state reported a 17% decline in pre-kindergarten students and an 8% decline in kindergarten students. .

The 3.6% enrollment decline in Illinois is on par with enrollment declines in other states. Prior enrollment trends predicted a 1.1 decrease in a typical year, officials said, but COVID-19 created a far from typical learning environment.

“We have witnessed both tragedy and heroism in our schools over the past year,” State Supt. Carmen Ayala said. “Students and educators have lost so much and lived and learned through unthinkable obstacles, but loss is not the whole story.”

Four-year high school graduation rates remained on track with previous years, and more students took college and career preparation coursework Advanced Placement, career technical education and dual credit coursework, the report said

CPS reported a record-high graduation rate, with 83.8 percent of students graduating in five years in 2021 despite the pandemic’s disruptions.

“Though the past few school years have been extremely challenging, there’s a lot to be proud of on this year’s Report Card,” CPS CEO Pedro Martinez said in a statement. “Our goal now must be creating a strategic plan for helping them build on this momentum, and that plan includes keeping every one of our students healthy and safe, and giving them the knowledge and tools they need to succeed in school and in life.”

The data does show larger decreases in academic achievement among middle-school students. The rate of ninth-grade students on track to graduate dropped by about 5 percent from 2018-19 to 2020-21, which reflects increases in failing grades.

Preliminary spring testing data from the Illinois Assessment of Readiness also shows far fewer students met grade-level standards in English language arts and math, with greater losses among English-language learners. About 16.6 percent fewer students met grade-level standards in English language arts in 2020-21 than in 2018-19, and about 17.8 percent fewer students met grade-level standards in math. The preliminarily data was collected from assessments delivered to about 90% of schools, and 70% of students.

The testing window for school districts was extended last spring due to the pandemic. The state will release district- and school-level assessment data on Dec. 2.

The state has received more than $7 billion in federal funding to address the impact of the pandemic on schools, particularly with the academic and social-emotional needs of students.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker said in a statement that his administration has been “working hand in-hand with school administrators across the state to ensure the $7 billion dedicated to renewing K-12 learning for Illinois students properly addresses this long period of disruption and devastation.”

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