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Test scores are still down from the pandemic. Can high-impact tutoring help Illinois students bounce back?

Amanda Baum is the region 2 program coordinator at NIU for the Illinois Tutoring Initiative
Peter Medlin
Amanda Baum is the region 2 program coordinator at NIU for the Illinois Tutoring Initiative

Camryn Swann is tutoring two 5th-graders at the Hiawatha School District, about a half hour south of Rockford. They both need help in language arts, but in different areas.

“That first week, it was just small little activities and I picked up one of them really struggles with spelling," she said. "So, their fluency levels are super low, because they don't understand how to spell the word, let alone what it means. Another one, he's right at grade level, and his needs are more so attention and comprehension.”

Plenty of students are in that position; still trying to find their footing in school after a pandemic upended education. Illinois Assessment of Readiness test scores are down 7.5% in reading from pre-pandemic levels. Math scores have dropped 6% since 2019. That's why the state spent $25 million in federal COVID relief funds to help get students back up to speed through “high-impact” tutoring.

And the tutoring initiative is ramping up this fall. Hundreds of tutors are working with students from 3rd through 8th grade.

Swann is a senior at Northern Illinois University who will be a middle school teacher next year and a tutor in Illinois region 2 of the initiative. It runs out of NIU and stretches from Starved Rock up to the Wisconsin border. NIU is one of several universities acting as “tutoring hubs” for the federal COVID relief-funded project.

Amanda Baum is the region 2 program coordinator at NIU. She says 31 school districts in their region were identified as disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. Baum says they looked at socio-economic indicators like the percentage of students who qualify for free and reduced lunch along with COVID data and attendance numbers.

As of now, they’re working with students in around 10 districts across northern Illinois. They’re still training more teachers and securing more schools through the fall and hope to be at full capacity by the spring. The federal funding expires in 2024, so there’s a sense of urgency to getting it up and running. They also have point-people at each partner school who collaborate with the students’ teacher and can identify other kids at the school who might need tutoring.

The state calls this sort of tutoring “high-impact,” which some researchhas shown can help students improve in math and reading. “High-impact” means a few things. For one, it has to be either one-on-one or groups no bigger than three. It also has to be frequent. Swann meets with her students 2-3 times a week for at least an hour.

Amanda Baum says maybe the most essential part is relationship building. She says some people might think of tutors like short-order cooks: they show up, help the kid with his algebra homework and get out. But, she explains, that’s not how this works.

“They're doing interest inventories to find out how they feel about certain types of activities,” she said. “We have Jenga and Uno [we] use all of those little tricks to just play for a little bit so that the tutor can get to know the student and the student can see ‘Hey, tutoring is fun! I want to come back!’”

She says, obviously, academic outcomes are important. But if high-impact tutoring can get a student to want to come to school every day and feel confident to re-engage in class -- that’s huge in its own right.

Their tutors spend time getting to know kids and, in many cases, will spend the whole year working on targeted goals related to where they’re having trouble. They do periodic assessments to make sure they’re actually making progress. After each session, both the tutor and student fill out a little form on how they feel the session went.

Swann says she starts off every session with a game to get students engaged in having fun. She’s partial to “this or that” where she presents a silly question like “Would you rather fly or have magic powers?” and then they have to defend their position.

“The girl I tutor was like, ‘obviously, I'd rather have magic powers, because then I could just have the power to fly as well,’” said Swann. “And I was like, ‘You got me on that.’”

Swann is a future teacher who has already spent time working in classrooms and building lesson plans, which makes her an ideal candidate for the tutoring initiative -- although plenty of other tutors are current teachers, retired educators or community members.

She says she works with students on their in-class assignments, but she also spends a lot of time building individual lesson plans to home in on the areas where her kids struggle.

“The majority of the time that we spend together I make the materials, we sit down and they're learning a new concept. And I'm teaching them not only skills like fluency and comprehension, but I'm also teaching them test-taking strategies,” said Swann.

It’s only been a few weeks, so it’s hard to say if they’re already making gains, but she says she feels like she knows exactly where she needs to target lessons.

Illinois State Superintendent Carmen Ayala is confident in the program. She directly called out the tutoring program recently as a big reason that student growth scores could continue improving.

One of the other added benefits of the program: as mentioned, many tutors, like Swann, are future educators. The experience gives them more tools they can use to help students once they’re in charge of classrooms.

Peter joins WNIJ as a graduate of North Central College. He is a native of Sandwich, Illinois.