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ILEARN scores show struggling students remain behind after pandemic

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By DYLAN PEERS MCCOY WFYI

Student passing rates on Indiana’s standardized test rose slightly last school year, but many students remain far behind where they would have been without the educational disruption caused by COVID-19. And state officials say some students are not making academic gains fast enough to catch up from the education they missed out on.

About 30.2% of Indiana students passed both the math and English sections of ILEARN in 2021-22, according to data released July 13. That’s a 1.6 percentage point increase from the prior school year and several percentage points below the rate before the pandemic. 

Indiana also released summary results from a study of how the pandemic impacted student learning conducted by the National Center for Assessment, a nonprofit. It found that while many students were learning as much — or more — as they did before the pandemic, the lowest-scoring students were still losing ground. 

Scores reflect all ILEARN Spring 2021 and 2022 testers. Subgroup totals may differ slightly due to student undetermined demographics. (Chart/Eric Weddle/WFYI – Source: Indiana Department of Education – Created with Datawrapper)

“Across the board, our lowest-performing students are not demonstrating improvement,” said Charity Flores, the education department’s chief academic officer. 

Flores noted that English language learners in particular had smaller gains on the state English exam. Students who receive special education services also had declining or stabilizing results in English, although they saw improvement in math.

State board member Scott Bess, who leads a network of charter high schools, said that if students progress through school without catching up after missing instruction during the pandemic, it will have a ripple effect that “scares the crap out of me.”

“As a state, these kinds of results should be a big flashing red light that says we have to do something,” Bess said after the meeting. “There’s nothing that I think is more important than solving this problem.”

The standardized test is given to Hoosier elementary and middle school students in grades three through eight. The state administered ILEARN for the first time in 2019, but it did not test students in 2020 due to the pandemic. When the test returned in 2021, passing rates declined significantly — a sign of the societal and educational turmoil students endured. 

Indiana Secretary of Education Katie Jenner said educators’ efforts are having a positive impact. But for some students, the learning measured by the test stalled or was continuing to decline. 

“We must continue to aggressively pursue innovative solutions to best support all of our students, especially our students who are still overcoming the challenges posed by the pandemic, as well as students who were underperforming prior to the pandemic,” Jenner said in a statement. 

Statewide, about 41% of students passed the English exam, while over 39% passed the math section in 2022. 

Scores varied significantly among subgroups. Just about 17% of students who qualified for free or reduced-price lunch, a proxy for family income, passed both tests. Among affluent and middle-class students, about 42% passed both sections of the test. 

Bess, the state board member, highlighted gaps in passing rates among Black, Hispanic and white students. About 10% of Black students passed both tests. Just over 17% of Hispanic students passed both. And almost 37% of White students passed both. 

“We have to address that,” Bess said. “This isn’t like this is a surprise — part of the pandemic — this has been systemic.” 

The state has largely ended the negative consequences that schools used to face because of low passing rates. In 2021, the legislature eliminated consequences from its accountability model, such as state takeovers of local schools. 

ILEARN scores also won’t be used to give schools A-F letter grades. Instead, all schools will be assigned a “null” or “no letter grade” for the 2021-2022 school year. The state plans to launch a new performance dashboard in the fall.

Contact WFYI education reporter Dylan Peers McCoy at dmccoy@wfyi.org. Follow on Twitter: @dylanpmccoy.

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