20% fewer Illinois public school students proficient in reading, math

20% fewer Illinois public school students proficient in reading, math

Illinois students’ academic proficiency remains below pre-pandemic levels. Demographic achievement gaps persist. School choice is part of the solution.

“On track.” That’s how State Superintendent of Education Carmen Ayala described the state’s students based on Illinois State Board of Education test data from this past spring.

But only 30% of students were reading at grade level.

Nearly 75% failed to meet proficiency in math.

On average, students today are still performing worse than they did before the pandemic.

The Illinois State Board of Education released test data for this past spring and officials are framing the data in terms of growth. They point out students on average progressed more this year on state tests than comparable students did in the year before the pandemic.

Proficiency rates fluctuated this spring as some grades outperformed their 2021 counterparts. Others scored below that benchmark. But what remains consistent is that students on average are performing worse today than they did prior to the pandemic.

Proficiency rates fail to return to pre-pandemic levels

In 2018-2019, the final school year before the state implemented COVID-19 mitigations, nearly 38% of students in grades 3 through 8 were proficient in reading and 32% in math, according to the Illinois State Board of Education. Today, ISBE reports just 30% of students are reading at grade level and 26% are proficient in math.

Among students who entered high school this fall and had their middle school years interrupted by the pandemic, 20% fewer students are considered proficient in reading and 22% in math since spring 2019.

Students who were in third grade in 2018-2019 and finished sixth grade this past spring fared even worse. Among these students, 22% fewer are at grade level in reading and 50% fewer scored proficient in math compared to 2019.

Other areas which state officials have sought to highlight include the high school graduation rate, which sits at 87% – the highest it has been in 12 years. But this comes while high schoolers scored 34 points lower on the SAT compared to 2019 and barely 30% of current seniors can read at grade level.

For Black and Hispanic high school students, outcomes remain poor and perpetuate historic achievement gaps between white and Asian students and other students of color. This past spring, there was a nearly 38 percentage point difference in the number of Black and Hispanic 11th grade students scoring at reading level on the SAT compared to white and Asian students. In math, the difference is over 40 percentage points.

These are troubling statistics. The public education system in Illinois is failing students, especially minority students. The solution is not as simple as more money.

A Wirepoints analysis of state education spending and National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores across the nation found Illinois’ education spending per student has increased at a greater percentage than any other state with little to no improvement on NAEP scores. In 2019, Illinois’ neighboring states spent 30% to 60% less on education per student yet their students largely outscored Illinois students on the NAEP.

A proven solution: school choice

School choice offers a solution to the academic declines facing Illinois and the historic achievement gaps between demographic groups.

Milwaukee Public Schools serves as an example. It is the largest school district in Wisconsin and more than 75% of its students are Black or Latino and come from low-income families.

The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program is the oldest school choice program of its kind and gives more than 28,000 Milwaukee students more than $8,000 in scholarships each year toward tuition at a school of their family’s choice. Studies have found the program reduced racial segregation in Milwaukee while improving test scores in both private schools and traditional public schools.

The Invest in Kids tax credit scholarship program is Illinois’ take on offering parents and students more flexibility in school options. It passed in 2017 and offers scholarships to attend qualified non-public schools to K-12 students whose family incomes do not exceed 300% of the federal poverty level.

Since 2018, more than 37,000 scholarships totaling more than $280 million have been awarded, and thousands more students remain on waiting lists to receive scholarships with only 21% of scholarship demand being met in 2021.

But the Invest in Kids scholarship opportunities are set to expire Dec. 31, 2023. If the program is allowed to die, thousands of Illinois students and their families would be left scrambling for other scholarship money to stay in their schools. They might have to leave their private schools or might never get the option.

It’s time Illinois adopts more expansive school choice policies to give students and parents more freedom to choose the educational options which best fit their needs. Lawmakers ought to continue to invest in academic growth for Illinois students, whether that be in the public or private education system.

State lawmakers should make the Invest in Kids program permanent and expand it to include preschool and allow business donors to target schools. That would be a solid achievement.

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