State’s high school graduation rate highest in at least a decade

Illinois Report Card shows performance data from the state’s public schools

The Rock Falls High School graduating class of 2022 scan the crowd at Tabor Gym for family members before the start of  commencement exercises on Sunday.

Academic gains by Black and Hispanic students produced the state’s highest graduation rate in 12 years — the first year it started tracking it, the Illinois State Board of Education said Thursday.

Improvement in math and English language arts were reported across all demographic categories, ISBE added.

But, chronic absenteeism remains a big problem in the state’s schools.

The announcement was timed with the release of the Illinois Report Card, which posts data provided by public school districts through the end of the previous school year.

Carmen Ayala, state superintendent of education, appears during the March 22 presentation for Teacher of the Year at Oregon High School. She will be the featured presenter at an Education Pathways symposium April 29 at Sauk Valley Community College.

All the figures in this story are based on preliminary numbers provided to the news media in advance of the report card’s scheduled release.

“I’m pleased that the growth in the graduation rate is driven by some of our most vulnerable students, and that all our students collectively are picking up their learning and demonstrating tremendous growth,” Gov. JB Pritzker said in a news release.

Pritzker highlighted another element of the report: Illinois added more than 2,500 full-time teachers, which included more than 500 or were either Black or Hispanic. Teacher retention — which tracks those teachers who returned to the same school in consecutive years — also hit a nine-year high at 87.6%.

“Of course, we still have much work to do, but I am encouraged and proud to see that our children have a bright future,” he added.

The state average for four-year graduation rates was 87.3%. For Black students it was 79.5% and for Hispanic students it was 85%.

For comparison, most school districts in the four-county Sauk Valley region had graduation rates higher than the state average. And those below it were just barely so.

Across the board, student growth in the two core subject areas rebounded in 2022 after having plummeted in the aftermath of the COVID-19 lockdown, when there was a reliance on remote learning.

In 2019, the state’s student growth — which measures how students progressed in a single year compared to their peers on the same baseline — was at the 50th percentile for both English language arts and math. By 2021, those measures had dropped to the 38th percentile.

The current report showed English language arts was back to the 54th percentile and math had climbed to the 52nd percentile.

State Superintendent of Education Carmen I. Ayala said that data shows Illinois students are “absolutely on the right track.”

“We have challenges and work ahead of us, but the accelerated rate of learning that students achieved last year means that we’re headed in the right direction,” Ayala said. “The ways in which we invested the federal pandemic relief funds are working. We can expect to see even more growth over the next couple years as these programs expand and reach even more students.”

Illinois schools received $7.8 billion in federal pandemic recovery money, which they can spend over three fiscal years. Many districts applied the money to curriculum, summer school and tutoring, and emotional-social support systems.

Student growth doesn’t match subject proficiency, however, a point the report makes. About 20% fewer students met or exceeded grade-level standards on their spring 2022 assessments when compared to similar assessments given in 2019.

Absenteeism as a contributing factor was noted. Illinois saw 30% of students were chronically absent — matching a national trend.

To be chronically absent, the student misses 10% of the school year; in Illinois that’s 17 days or more.

Chronic absentee rates were 48% for Black students, 36% for Hispanic students, 43% for low-income students, 35% for English Learners (those who are not fluent in English and have difficulty learning in an English-speaking classroom) and 40% for students with disabilities.

According to ISBE, each of the 38 Regional Offices of Education and Intermediate Service Centers, including Chicago Public Schools, received between $180,000 and $1.2 million this fall to tackle truancy.

Overall, that’s $12 million in state-funded grants to address intervention, including counseling, tutoring, credit recovery, home visits, mentoring and transportation.

ISBE devoted an additional $100 million in partnership grants and set up eight regional social-emotional learning hubs to address situations where mental health is an underlying cause of absenteeism.

School districts are encouraged to adopt the Resilience Education to Advance Community Healing model, better known as REACH, to address trauma needs.

Other findings from the report card:

— The rate of ninth-graders on track to graduate is back to pre-pandemic levels, at 86.6%. Since 2018, it’s risen 2.5% for Black students and 1.3% for Hispanic students.

— Student enrollment in remedial classes at Illinois community colleges was reduced to its lowest level of 26.4% for the Class of 2020, reflecting the implementation of transitional math and English courses. The goal is to reduce the need for remedial classes and more quickly get college students taking coursework for degree credit.

— The number of students taking career and technical education or dual-credit courses has increased again. It’s happened every year since the trend started in 2018.

— Student enrollment has stabilized, but continues to decline about 1% per year, tracking with the state and nation birthrates.

Troy Taylor

Troy E. Taylor

Was named editor for and the Gazette and Telegraph in 2021. An Illinois native, he has been a reporter or editor in daily newspapers since 1989.