The Policy Shop: Illinois public schools lower the bar instead of raising proficiency

The Policy Shop: Illinois public schools lower the bar instead of raising proficiency

Summer break is here, and with it an opportunity to reflect on how things are going in our schools.

Illinois found itself among the minority of states graduating a higher percent of students post-pandemic in 2022. Yet, a deeper dive into state data reveals a troubling trend: while high school graduation rates rose, SAT scores fell and a smaller percentage of graduates enrolled in higher education.

Rising graduation rates amid a pandemic. Illinois is one of just 20 states that saw an increase in its public school graduation rate during the first two tumultuous years of the pandemic, based on an analysis by the EdWeek Research Center. Illinois’ graduation rates continued to rise into 2022. From 2019 to 2022, Illinois’ four-year graduation rate jumped by 1.3%, reaching 87.3% in 2022. In fact, 260 Illinois school districts outpaced the state average, with 11 districts boasting a perfect 100% graduation rate.

It’s worth noting 2020 graduation rates were potentially influenced by the State Board of Education and Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s pandemic-necessitated adjustments to 2020 graduation requirements.

Why are fewer kids going to college? Despite the plus of higher graduation rates, the percentage of students transitioning into U.S. colleges within 12 to 16 months of graduating from Illinois public high schools decreased by 11% compared to 2019. In 2022, only 64.3% of graduates enrolled in postsecondary education within a year, a stark drop from the 72.5% in 2019.

Several factors could be contributing to this drop, including the soaring cost of college tuition – Illinois residents pay the fourth-highest tuition rates in the nation and the highest in the Midwest. Plus, the trade, transportation and utilities industry experienced a 1.77% increase in job growth between January 2019 and January 2023, with the construction industry experiencing a 2.68% increase.

Declining SAT scores are a cause for concern. Not only are fewer graduates pursuing higher education, but the academic preparedness of these graduates, as measured by SAT scores, has also taken a hit. Illinois tests 11th-grade students using the SAT. Since 2019 the percentage of students meeting proficiency has seen a significant decline.

In 2022, only around 30% of students demonstrated proficiency in reading, while a mere 29% hit the mark in math. This represents a 2% reading proficiency drop and nearly 5% math drop since 2019. Average scores on the reading and math sections of the SAT in April 2022 were 486.4 and 473.8, marking an 11- and 23-point drop since 2019.

Reading + math declines. It’s not just the SAT where kids are seeing proficiency declines. Recently retired state Superintendent Carmen Ayala described the state’s students as “on track” based on Illinois State Board of Education test data from spring 2022.

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, according to the most recent data available from the Illinois State Board of Education.

Among students who entered high school in fall 2021 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 in the spring of 2022 fared even worse. Among these students, 22% fewer are at grade level in reading and 50% fewer scored proficient in math compared to 2019.

These trends are not OK. While it's promising to see the resilience of Illinois students reflected in increasing graduation rates, the simultaneous decrease in SAT scores, college enrollment rates and other proficiency measurements cannot be overlooked. As we celebrate our students' achievements this summer, let's also remember the importance of supporting their academic readiness and future opportunities. It’s time to address these disparities and ensure a high school diploma from Illinois equips our students for success, whether they choose to enter the workforce or continue their education. To see how your school district measures up, you can view average graduation rates and postsecondary enrollment rates here.

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