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Readings scores rise for Chicago kids

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Across the nation, almost every school district saw declines in test scores during the pandemic. Experts say it will take a few more years before the nation gets back to where it was. But in Chicago, public schools say they've already done it in reading, says one of the first high-poverty school districts to exceed pre-pandemic levels. Sarah Karp from member station WBEZ reports.

SARAH KARP, BYLINE: The state won't release official test score data for months, but Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez recently received early data. At a gathering of educators this week, he said he couldn't wait to share it. He called the state superintendent to get permission.

PEDRO MARTINEZ: Tony, do you mind if I share this very preliminary information? It's very preliminary. But our gains just came out from reading, five-point gains again, building on the six points before the prior year. We are now above pre-pandemic levels of literacy, led by our Black students, who had the highest gains, six points.

KARP: A study by Harvard and Stanford showed last year Chicago was an anomaly, improving more than other high-poverty school districts in Illinois and compared to big city school districts across the nation. But researchers note they're a little nervous about the analysis, as it's hard to compare school districts in different states, given that each takes a unique test. Another caveat - Chicago's reading and math proficiency rates pre-pandemic were low. Even with gains, today, only 31% are considered proficient in reading and 20% in math. Janice Jackson, who led CPS up until 2021, says she worries the district is taking a victory lap too soon.

JANICE JACKSON: Not telling parents how their children are doing, pretending that things are OK when our students are behind their peers, is simply not OK. And we have to start being honest with the people that we're serving.

KARP: And there's also a lot of fear that the progress could be derailed. Chicago spent its $2.8 billion in federal COVID relief money on upgrading curriculum, individual supports for struggling students and after-school programs. Nick Guerrero is principal of an elementary school. He says this has been life changing.

NICK GUERRERO: So we need to find ways and how to continue to provide this support for the students, which we specifically at Ravenswood did use for - tutoring, tutoring, tutoring, which is why we were able to see a lot of gains.

KARP: Martinez has said that the federal COVID relief money allowed the historically underfunded Chicago public schools to get where it needs to be in terms of staff and supports. But with that money running out at the end of this year, the district is facing a deficit of more than $400 million. Martinez is trying to keep cuts away from classrooms but has yet to lay out what he plans to do.

For NPR News, I'm Sarah Karp in Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Sarah Karp is a reporter at WBEZ. A former reporter for Catalyst-Chicago, the Chicago Reporterand the Daily Southtown, Karp has covered education, and children and family issues for more than 15 years. She is a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism. She has won five Education Writers Association awards, three Society of Professional Journalism awards and the 2005 Sidney Hillman Award. She is a native of Chicago.