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Too few Illinois students are academically prepared to face an increasingly competitive world, according to a report released today by independent education advocacy organization Advance Illinois. The State We’re In: 2012 is a biennial report card on Illinois public education that spans from preschool to postsecondary and looks beyond test scores to examine academic progress, achievement gaps and learning conditions within the state’s public schools. 

At a time when 80% of Illinois jobs require more than a high school diploma, only 29% of Illinois adults ever earn a two-year or four- year degree. Given that the state’s academic performance has remained flat for much of the past decade, without serious effort and change, Illinois’ prospects for improvement are slim.  

“The hard truth is Illinois’ public schools are not getting the majority of students where they need to go, and this fact has not changed in the past decade,” said former White House Chief of Staff and former U.S. Commerce Secretary Bill Daley, a founding co-chair of Advance Illinois. “About one-third of students are on-track and prepared for today’s world. But the school system simply isn’t working for the rest, and Illinois students deserve better.” 

The State We’re In: 2012 assesses Illinois’ performance in early education, K-12 and postsecondary.  And as they did in 2010, they graded the state.  

Early Education: Incomplete, 2010: Incomplete. Illinois continues to be a national leader in providing students access to state-funded early education programs enrolling 20 percent of 3-year-olds and 29 percent of 4-year-olds.  Fewer still may be served in the coming years due to the state’s fiscal crisis.  

Illinois does not yet measure whether children are academically, emotionally and socially ready to start kindergarten or whether students eligible for bilingual early education instruction receive the services that state law requires. As a result, Illinois again receives an “Incomplete.” 

“Illinois set an important precedent in extending to early education the bilingual services that typically begin in kindergarten. This will give our state a jump start in narrowing the achievement gap with English-language learners,” said Sylvia Puente, executive director of the Latino Policy Forum and an Advance Illinois founding board member. “We face a critical information deficit in that we are still a long way away from knowing whether our young children eligible for bilingual instruction actually get the services and supports they need.” 

K-12: C-, 2010: D. Illinois ranks in the bottom half of the nation in 4th– and 8th-grade reading and math. Only one-third of Illinois students are meeting key milestones such as 4th-grade reading proficiency, 8th-grade math proficiency and demonstrating college- and career-ready knowledge and skills in high school. Moreover, achievement gaps persist and rank among the largest in the nation. 

Illinois schools today are also confronting new challenges. For the first time, nearly half of Illinois’ 2 million public school students are economically disadvantaged and more than half of Illinois public schools serve 40 percent or more low-income students. 

“Illinois has changed significantly in the past decade with more students than ever before in economic need. This poses a new challenge for the schools that serve them,” said Timothy Knowles, director of the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute and a founding Advance Illinois board member. “But these changes do not make flat academic performance acceptable or inevitable.” 

Illinois improved its comparative national standing by holding steady in academic performance as other states confronting similar demographic changes declined. Because this report grades Illinois’ performance relative to other states – on a curve – Illinois’ overall grade for K-12 improved even as overall achievement did not. 

Postsecondary Readiness and Success: C+, 2010: C.  Fewer than one-third of Illinois students leave high school academically prepared for further academic study or work. These students are far less likely to enroll in postsecondary institutions and far more likely to drop out before they earn a two- or four-year degree. 

The increasing cost of college cannot be ignored. On average, Illinois families spend 21 percent of their income to send one student to a four-year public university, making our state one of the least affordable in the country. 

Importantly, Illinois is responding to these challenges. State education leaders, legislators and partners have advanced key reforms to improve outcomes and opportunities for all students regardless of race, geography or socio-economic status. 

The State We’re In: 2012 tracks key initiatives that will unfold during the coming years, such as the roll out of the higher, internationally-benchmarked Common Core State Standards in math and English Language Arts, the administration of new school surveys of teachers and students regarding the learning conditions and climate within schools statewide, the pilot of a new kindergarten-readiness measure and the implementation of new educator evaluations. 

“Illinois has a broad reform plan to strengthen the school system from top to bottom, and this bodes well for our state’s future. However, lasting improvement takes time and the impact on student achievement will not happen overnight,” said Advance Illinois Executive Director Robin Steans. “Illinois can turn things around if we set higher expectations and put the supports in place to meet them. Otherwise, we will continue to see the mediocre results that we’ve seen for the past decade, and that is completely unacceptable.” 

To view the full report or for more information, visit www.advanceillnois.org/SWI