Chicago’s youngest students showed growth on reading tests last year, but officials mum on math

Three kindergarten read books together with their teacher at a table with books and hand puppets of different animals.
Chicago Public Schools said 40% of students in kindergarten through second grade were at or above grade level in reading, according to test scores at the end of last school year. (Samantha Smylie / Chalkbeat)

Chicago Public Schools said Monday that last year’s kindergarten, first, and second grade students made promising progress in reading, according to data from a new test now used in most district elementary schools. 

Officials touted reading growth on a new test called i-Ready, which students took at the beginning, middle, and end of the 2022-23 school year. According to a press release, about 40% of kindergarten through second grade students were at or above grade level in reading by May, up from just 9% in September.  

The district also noted that Black and Latino students’ scores improved on the exam. The percentage of Black students scoring at or above grade level went from 5% to 32% by the end of the year. The percentage of Latino students at or above grade level went from 5% at the start of the school year to 32% by year’s end.

However, CPS did not provide the data by school and did not release any information about how the city’s youngest learners were doing in math. 

Ernest Williams, principal of Ellington Elementary School, said tests such as i-Ready are different from standardized tests administered by the state. These diagnostic tests are designed as a tool for teachers and school leaders to monitor how a student is doing in real time so they can adjust teaching practice or provide extra help. 

“It gives us data on which students need urgent intervention, which students are almost there, and which students are on track,” said Williams. “It gives teachers recommendations on how to push the students further.” 

Bogdana Chkoumbova, chief education officer of Chicago Public Schools, on Monday attributed some of the increases in literacy scores to the district’s investment in expanding Skyline curriculum to 400 schools, professional development for educators, diagnostic tests, and expanding the district’s Tutor Corps to 200 elementary schools to help students between kindergarten and fifth grade. 

The district also highlighted an initiative funded by federal COVID recovery money to create “literacy-rich environments,” with colorful rugs, comfortable chairs, technology, and new books at 90 schools. Students at those schools were also given packs of books to take home twice a year. Officials said 50 more schools will be added to that program this year.  

At Ellington, teachers and interventionists are able to look at the i-Ready data alongside other classroom tests and pull students into small groups based on their scores, Williams said.

On Monday, Chicago Public Schools officials toured Ellington, where they visited two classrooms to see how teachers were teaching students how to read. 

In one kindergarten classroom, three teachers sat with three separate groups of students. One group practiced reading out loud. Another spent time matching letters and drawing pictures. And another group created sentences with cards labeled with pictures and words. 

State and local school officials have been concerned about students backsliding in reading and math after the coronavirus pandemic disrupted education in 2020. Since 2021, results on national and state assessments showed significant drops in student test scores. Chicago Public Schools announced last week that more students met state math and reading standards, but the metrics still lagged pre-pandemic levels. 

CEO Pedro Martinez said Monday afternoon at the press conference that proficiency in reading is important for students to be successful in their academic careers and throughout their lives. 

“Our ultimate goal is for students to be literate by third grade,” said Martinez. “Proficiency by third grade is essential for being ready for high school, graduating from CPS, being prepared to succeed in college, career, and community.”

Chicago’s standardized tests shift post-pandemic

The district previously used the Northwest Evaluation Administration’s Measures of Academic Progress in second through eighth grade and a mix of other assessments for kindergarten, first, and second grade students. In 2021, the district announced it would no longer use MAP to monitor student growth and measure school performance. And in April 2022, the school board approved a three-year, $6.75 million contract with Curriculum Associates, the company that makes the i-Ready test. 

Now, most kindergarten through second grade students take i-Ready and most third through eighth grade students take a similar test known as Star360

Not all schools are required to take the i-Ready, but according to data obtained by Chalkbeat earlier this year, 424 of the district’s 500-plus elementary schools used the assessment during the 2022-23 school year. 

Given the recent switch, it’s difficult to compare how Chicago’s youngest students are doing compared to before the pandemic. A national report on i-Ready scores released last fall indicated young readers were struggling

According to data from the NWEA MAP test in 2019 — the last time CPS published results from that test to its public data page — 56% of the district’s second graders were at or above the national average in reading.

Data from the i-Ready beginning and middle of the year tests obtained by Chalkbeat in March did not break down data by grade level, but overall district numbers indicated growth between the beginning and middle of the year.

In a presentation given to principals around the same time, district officials said Chicago’s middle-of-the-year scores tracked closely with other urban districts, with roughly 53% of kindergarten students at or above grade level for reading, 33% of first graders, and 37% of second graders. All three groups saw double-digit growth in reading from the beginning of the year. 

Chicago Public Schools is moving away from using these types of tests to rate and measure school performance. During the pandemic, the district paused and eventually scrapped a controversial school quality rating policy that partly relied on NWEA MAP scores. 

Last April, the school board approved a new system for measuring school performance that will no longer assign a numerical rating to schools. Instead, parents and the public will get a dashboard with a variety of metrics to explore — including state test scores, attendance, graduation rates, college enrollment, and a host of other information about curriculum and the student experience on campus. 

Mila Koumpilova contributed reporting.

Becky Vevea is the bureau chief for Chalkbeat Chicago. Contact Becky at bvevea@chalkbeat.org.

Samantha Smylie is the state education reporter for Chalkbeat Chicago, covering school districts across the state, legislation, special education, and the state board of education. Contact Samantha at ssmylie@chalkbeat.org.

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