Only one-third of Illinois students are proficient in reading at 3rd grade, begin high school academically on-track to graduate and leave high school ready for college, according to the latest Advance Illinois report on education in Illinois.

As students get older, the picture continues to be bleak. Students who don’t meet at least three college readiness standards on the ACT have only a 15 percent chance of graduating from college, according to research. Because of lack of preparation, fewer than 30 percent of Illinois students who go to college will graduate, the report projects.

Advance Illinois Executive Director Robin Steans says the finding that so few students are reading well in 3rd grade is “shocking,” even though she is immersed in the education world.

The fact that these students never catch up is a call to action, Steans said.

Another troubling finding: 15 percent of young adults are out of work and out of school, up from 13 percent in 2010, according to the report “The State We’re In.”

Illinois also has one of the worst achievement gaps in the nation. “A shockingly low 12 percent of African American students, 18 percent of Latino students and 16 percent of low-income students read proficiently in 4th grade,” according to the report. Yet the gap narrowed slightly in 8th-grade and more students of color and poor students are taking Advanced Placement exams, though few are passing them.

The biennial report issued by the powerful advocacy group is meant to pull together a variety of statistics to paint a full picture of education in the state.

Overall, the latest report gives the state slightly better grades than it did two years ago. In the area of early education, Illinois continues to get an incomplete; in elementary and high school education, the state gets a C-minus, up from a D; and in post-secondary education, it gets a C-plus, up from a C.

Yet most of the reason why Illinois did better is that it held steady, while other states declined.

“I don’t want there to be any false celebrations,” says Bill Daley, co-chair of the Advance Illinois board.

The report comes out just as the state is implementing a host of changes to the education system, from the more rigorous Common Core standards—and, eventually, new tests based on those standards—to a new teacher and principal evaluation system to a protocol to assess how many preschoolers are ready for kindergarten.

Steans says she’s hoping the report underscores the importance of implementing these new measures well.

“All these parts matter and relate to each other,” Steans says. “It is a life boat. If you are missing even one plank, you will sink.”

High school exit exams?

The report also might set the stage for new legislation to make sure that students don’t graduate from high school without the skills to get through college. About 55 percent of Illinois high school graduates go on to college, according to the report.

“College is expensive,” says Steans, noting another finding: Paying for college takes 21 percent of a typical family’s median income, a percentage that has risen since 2010.

Steans says a state committee is looking at options to ensure that students don’t go to college only to drop out, such as high school exit tests or, as an alternative, end-of-course tests that students take as they complete classes.

Yet Steans stresses that she believes the problems in college begin way before hand.

Illinois has been widely seen as a leader in providing preschool to three and four- year-olds. With 20 percent of three-year-olds in state-funded programs, Illinois is still No. 1 in the nation. However, over the past two years, the number dropped by 1 percentage point and the report notes that budget pressures may result in even fewer children have access to preschool in the future.

Illinois still gets a grade of incomplete in early childhood because it still does not have information on how many children walk into kindergarten with the age-appropriate skills and knowledge. Illinois, however, is expected in 2015 to roll out statewide a survey tool to measure school readiness.

Strengthen the ‘essential supports’

To change the scenario, the report advocates that schools focus on strengthening the essential supports—ambitious instruction, collaborative teachers, effective leaders, supportive environments and involved families—which were identified by the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago.

One hurdle in bringing more of these supports to schools is the growth in low-income enrollment coupled with a lack of resources for these students, according to the Advance Illinois report. One example: Illinois is ranked 43rd nationally in the ratio of students to counselors.

Advance Illinois points to Massachusetts as one of the places Illinois should emulate. Almost two decades ago, Massachusetts legislators passed a bill that, among other strategies, promised equitable funding across school districts and implemented a high school exit exam. The state also tests teachers on a general curriculum and requires them to do art and science coursework.

As a result, Massachusetts has experienced a surge in student achievement, according to the report.

Illinois stands to see some of the same improvement after the implementation of the reforms set out in recently-adopted legislation and policy, Steans says. But the improvement will not happen quickly.

The 2012 report opens with a 10-page narrative that attempts to put Illinois in context, arguing that the state is still a leader in the number of adults with college degrees but is in danger of falling behind. Also, it points out that the United States is behind other nations in academic performance.

Daley says he and other business leaders became involved with Advance Illinois out of concern that the state was not producing enough qualified workers for higher- skilled jobs. “If we don’t do something about this, our economy is going to deteriorate,” he says.

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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