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Modest gains for this year’s Indiana test scores after pandemic declines

Several desks are in a classroom with laptops open on them, and no students are present.

Indiana’s ILEARN scores remain below pre-pandemic proficiency rates, and the recovery among various student groups has been uneven.

Laura Faith Kebede / Chalkbeat

Indiana students’ test scores rose slightly this year after dropping in 2021 due to the pandemic, according to new ILEARN exam data released Wednesday.  

The results of this year’s state testing for grades 3-8 showed that 30.2% of students statewide scored proficient or better in both English/language arts and math, an increase of 1.6 percentage points over 2021. 

Additionally, 41.2% of students statewide scored proficient or better in English/language arts, and 39.4% scored proficient or better in math, an increase of roughly 1 percentage point and 3 percentage points, respectively.

The scores remain below pre-pandemic proficiency rates, and the recovery among various student groups has been uneven.

A study by an external group presented alongside the scores indicates more intense intervention is needed to help some student groups — like English language learners — catch up.

“Without meaningful intervention, significant gaps may continue to persist compared to the general student population,” the Indiana Department of Education said in a statement about the 2022 scores.

Younger students’ scores increased more than those from older students, and the latter group had more pronounced score declines from 2019 to 2021. (The state did not administer the test in 2020.) Together, these two trends might increase concern about the state’s middle school students in particular. 

Overall, students showed greater improvement in math than English/language arts. Math scores increased by 2-4 percentage points in all grades, while ELA scores increased by 1-2 percentage points in most grades. However, in grades 6 and 8, proficiency rates declined by 1 point.

“It’s common to see dips at grade 6 as students transition to middle school content,” said Charity Flores, chief academic officer at the state education department.

Around 99% of all third through eighth graders participated in ILEARN this year, taking the online test in person at schools.

One encouraging sign was that approximately 52% of all third graders scored at least proficient in math this year  — the first time that more than half of all students in a single grade level have been proficient in either subject since 2019. 

American Indian, Black, Hispanic, multiracial and white students all gained more than 2.5 percentage points in math proficiency rates. English learners and students receiving subsidized meals — a federal indicator of poverty — also raised their math scores by 2.9 and 2.6 points, respectively. 

Among all student racial and ethnic groups, Black students made the greatest gains in English/language arts with a 1.7 percentage point increase, followed by white students with a .9 percentage point increase, and Hispanic students with .8 percentage point increase. 

Hawaiian and Pacific Islander students’ scores declined by 5 percentage points in English/language arts.

Despite improvement across student groups, the rates of proficiency still varied dramatically. Roughly 19% of Black students and 28% of Hispanic students were proficient in English/language arts, compared to 48% of white students.

Those disparities caused consternation among state officials and others.

“We have to address ... the performance level of our Black students, the performance level of our Hispanic students, compared to where our white students are,” said state board of education member Scott Bess. “The number of students going into postsecondary is dropping off. If we don’t solve this at third grade, fourth grade, fifth grade, we have no shot at improving those numbers.”

Gwen Kelley, an education researcher who works with the Indianapolis NAACP, said it was troubling that the department’s presentation didn’t seem to highlight specific strategies to help underperforming Black students achieve parity with their peers.

Kelley said cultural competency is necessary to improving Black students’ outcomes. In English/language arts, this could look like developing an awareness of code-switching, or the way Black students speak at home versus school, she said.

“I’m not willing to accept that this is the best our children can do,” Kelley said.

Among other student groups, English learners raised their ELA proficiency scores 2.2 percentage points.

Students who receive subsidized meals saw a 1 point increase in English scores, while students who pay for lunch saw a 1 point decline.

Students in special education increased their proficiency rates by half a percentage point in ELA and 1.6 percentage points in math.

There were some encouraging signs in Marion County, the state’s biggest metro area, where all but one of the 11 school districts improved their overall proficiency rates.

Brandon Brown, CEO of The Mind Trust, an Indianapolis nonprofit, said the county’s independent charter schools also saw encouraging growth on the exams, especially for Black and Hispanic students.

An analysis by the group shows that charter schools in the county improved their overall proficiency rates by 3.8 percentage points — on par with Beech Grove City Schools, and just ahead of the growth in Indianapolis Public Schools of 3.3 percentage points.

But as the state works to improve racial equity, there’s a long way for students to go, said Brown, whose group works with charters.

“It’s good that we saw marginal increases. The challenge though is that we have only erased about 20% of the drops we saw,” Brown said. “At this rate, it’s going to take several more years to get back to 2019 levels, and 2019 levels were unacceptable.”

The state also sought to measure the rates at which students were recovering academically through a National Center for Assessment study of ILEARN scores over the last two years. 

Recovery, for the purposes of the study, did not mean attaining proficiency. Instead, the center defined recovery as how students would be scoring under pre-pandemic learning conditions, according to the state’s presentation.

While the study determined that most students were performing at expected levels, or even accelerating at rates needed to catch up to pre-pandemic levels, it found that some subgroups were falling further behind. 

For example, despite this year’s gains for English learners, proficiency rates “remain significantly below their grade level peers and their academic growth is not at the pace of other student populations,” said the study. 

“Therefore, English learner students have a lower rate of recovery in English/language arts, especially in middle grades, compared to their peers,” the study said.

The state expects to release SAT scores for high school juniors later this summer. The SAT replaced the previous test for older students, ISTEP, for the first time in the 2021-22 school year.

This story has been updated.

Aleksandra Appleton covers Indiana education policy and writes about K-12 schools across the state. Contact her at aappleton@chalkbeat.org.

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