Chicago children’s reading scores rise

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Mary Louise Kelly, host:

Across the country, nearly every school district has seen test scores decline during the pandemic. Experts say it will take a few more years before the nation returns to what it was. But in Chicago, public schools say they’ve already done that in reading, says one of the first high-poverty school districts to surpass pre-pandemic levels. Sarah Karp of member station WBEZ reports.

SARAH KARP, BYLINE: The state won’t release official test scores data for several months, but Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez recently received early data. At a gathering of teachers this week, he said he couldn’t wait to share it. Contact your state superintendent for permission.

Pedro Martinez: Tony, would you mind sharing this preliminary information? It’s very elementary. But our gains just came from the reading, five points again, building on the six points before the previous year. We are now above pre-pandemic literacy levels, led by our Black students, who had the highest gains, six points.

CARP: A Harvard-Stanford study last year showed that Chicago was an outlier, improving more than other high-poverty school districts in Illinois and compared to school districts in big cities across the country. But the researchers noted that they were a bit nervous about the analysis, because it is difficult to compare school districts in different states, given that each takes a unique test. Another caveat — reading and math proficiency rates in Chicago before the pandemic were low. Even with the gains, today, only 31% are considered proficient in reading and 20% in mathematics. Janice Jackson, who led CPS through 2021, says she’s concerned the district is winning too soon.

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Janice Jackson: Not telling parents how their children are doing, and pretending that things are okay when our students are lagging behind their peers, is simply unacceptable. We have to start by being honest with the people we serve.

KARP: There’s also a lot of concern that progress could be derailed. Chicago has spent $2.8 billion in federal coronavirus relief money on updating curriculum, individual support for struggling students and after-school programs. Nick Guerrero is an elementary school principal. He says this has been life changing.

Nick Guerrero: So we need to find ways and how to continue to provide that support to students, which we’ve used specifically at Ravenswood for – tutoring, tutoring, tutoring, and that’s why we’ve been able to see a lot of gains.

KARP: Martinez said federal coronavirus relief money has allowed Chicago’s historically underfunded public schools to get to where they need to be in terms of staffing and support. But with that money running out at the end of this year, the district faces a deficit of more than $400 million. Martinez is trying to keep the cuts out of classrooms, but he has not yet explained what he plans to do.

For NPR News, I’m Sarah Karp in Chicago.

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