Data released by the Illinois State Board of Education on Friday sheds new light on the COVID-19 pandemic's impact on public schools, from academic performance down to students’ very attendance - with one in five students statewide marked chronically absent last year, a figure that was even higher in Chicago and among some demographic groups.
Statewide public school enrollment during the 2020-2021 school year was down by nearly 70,000 students from the previous year, a 3.6% drop from pre-pandemic levels, according to ISBE's newly released Illinois Report Card data. While ISBE said officials anticipated a decrease in line with declining enrollment trends in prior years, they attributed 2.5% of that drop to the pandemic alone, but noted that the decrease is "on par" with other states across the U.S.
ISBE said they still aren't sure where those 70,000 students went – but the greatest decreases were in pre-kindergarten classes, which saw a 17% drop in enrollment, and in kindergarten, which fell by 8%, according to ISBE.
Last academic year, one in five Illinois students was listed as chronically absent, defined as missing at least 10% of school days with or without a valid excuse. That number climbs even higher for English learners, students with disabilities, low-income students as well as Black and Hispanic students.
"When looking at chronic absenteeism by student group, we see an increase across programs, with the biggest increase among English learners, a 38% increase over 2019," ISBE's Chief Research and Evaluation Officer Dr. Brenda Dixon said during a news conference on the data. "Looking at chronic absenteeism by race and ethnicity, we see the biggest increases in among Black and Hispanic students. Among Black students, chronic absenteeism increased 26%. Among Hispanic students, chronic absenteeism increased 27%."
"As we analyze these data, the context for last school year is critically important," Dixon continued. "We know from national studies from the CDC that school districts serving primarily Black and Hispanic students provided the least access to in-person learning last year. We suspect that less access to in-person learning contributed to lower engagement among Black and Hispanic students."
In Chicago Public Schools, 30% of students were chronically absent last year, ISBE’s data shows. Isolating by demographic group, 41% of Black students at CPS were chronically absent, followed by 38% of students with Individualized Education Programs, or IEPs.
Chronic truancy - students who miss at least 5% of school days without a valid reason - hit 22% statewide last year and 42% across CPS. Nearly 56% of CPS' Black students, just under 51% of students with IEPs and close to 40% of the district's Hispanic students were reported chronically truant.
"Our students, parents, staff and community displayed incredible resilience and tenacity and continued to make academic progress, even during an incredibly challenging school year," a spokeswoman for CPS said in a statement, cautioning against drawing conclusions from the state’s data and noting "it is a snapshot in time when the population we serve was disproportionately impacted by the pandemic."
One bright spot in the Illinois Report Card: advanced placement course engagement was up last year from the year before.
But two metrics ISBE uses to determine college and career readiness saw steep declines. The percentage of ninth graders on track to graduate - students who earned at least 5 full-year course credits and no more than one F - fell to 82.2% statewide last year from pre-pandemic levels, which marked a 5.1% drop due to an increase in failing grades, ISBE said. Eighth graders passing Algebra 1, the course ISBE called the "gateway to higher level math and science courses" that enables students to take more advanced courses that are often prerequisites for STEM majors, fell to 28.8% last year. That represents a 5.9% drop, again because of more students earning failing grades, from two years prior.
"There's a huge digital divide of access and we think a large component of our gaps that we see in student achievement, much of it is due to access," Dixon said, noting that some districts in the state still don't have adequate technology or broadband access to keep students engaged during remote learning.
ISBE's message after analyzing these figures from a school year that more than 90% of Illinois' public school students began without in-person learning? There is no substitute for physically being in a classroom.
"You can't replace teachers with computers. You can't replace teachers with Zoom," Dixon said. "I don't think there's anything you could replace a classroom teacher with that would be as effective."
The Illinois Report Card data can be found here.