For Northwest suburban school leaders, report card data during pandemic comes with asterisk

This article has been updated to clarify what Northbrook School District 28 believes it may have done differently than most other districts during the 2020-2021 school year.

While the significance of students' standardized test scores is often debated, the picture painted by the data in this year's pandemic-impacted Illinois Report Card is being scrutinized even more strongly by local school districts.

Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211, Palatine Township Elementary District 15 and Northbrook School District 28 are three in suburban Cook County whose overall results historically have exceeded those of state totals.

But only the last of those three bucked a statewide trend of an overall decline in student proficiency since the last time the tests were taken in pre-pandemic 2019 - and even then, for its mathematics scores alone.

District 28 Superintendent Larry Hewitt said even at the best of times standardized tests have some deficiencies as a sole measure of student achievement. Among them is the knowledge over more than half a century that poverty can be a factor in lower performance on standardized tests specifically, he said.

  Julie Wager teaches an AP statistics class at Schaumburg High School. Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211 schools were among those that struggled to help students meet proficiency standards over the pandemic. Brian Hill/

But Hewitt takes a glass-half-full approach in seeing his district's results as evidence of how much teachers, students and parents hung together through a particularly trying time.

If there's one thing he thinks his district might have done differently than most other districts, it was keeping in-person and remote learning largely separated last school year so that most teachers didn't have to divide their attention between two different audiences in the same class.

"What our test scores show is that our teachers did a great job engaging students in learning," Hewitt said. "It's harder to engage kids in remote learning. There's no doubt about that. Now our job is to figure out where the holes and the gaps are from last year and fill those."

Among District 28's test takers in the spring, scores for math showed 71% met or exceeded standards. By comparison, the math results in 2019 showed 66% met or exceeded standards.

District 28's 2021 scores for English language arts showed 65% met or exceeded standards, while 68% had done so back in 2019.

Officials in districts 15, 28 and 211 agreed environmental factors also played a part in students' test-taking last spring.

Hewitt said that while remote-learning students were coming into school for the first time in a long time, even those who were there regularly experienced necessary innovations to accommodate a much larger number of students.

Meg Schnoor, District 15 assistant superintendent of teaching and learning, said that day was far from the standard standardized test environment.

  Students look over their work during an AP statistics class at Schaumburg High School. Brian Hill/

While many students can feel anxious about coming into school at the beginning of a new year just for an orientation day, regular remote-learning students were coming in to take a test, she said.

But probably the most important asterisk to attach to District 15's 2021 results is that 37% of students didn't take the test at all, Schnoor said. In other years, 98% to 100% of students have taken the test, likely reducing the value of the results even as a point of comparison with future years, she said.

"In a pandemic, to be honest, the scores mean less," Schnoor said.

But perhaps parents and teachers would find value in the scores of an individual student who took the test each year, she said.

District 15 officials expect to find more immediate significance in the Measures of Academic Progress tests being taken by students in the fall and spring of the current school year, Schnoor said.

According to Illinois Report Card data, 32% of District 15 test takers met or exceeded standards in English language arts in 2021, compared to 42% in 2019. For math, 37% of test takers met or exceeded standards in 2021 while 44% did so in 2019.

Josh Schumacher, District 211 assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, said the SAT scores for English and math proficiency are just one of the ways his district assesses students' college and career readiness. And before the pandemic's disruption, those scores were going up.

While the district recognizes the trends reflected in the 2021 Illinois Report Card, Schumacher said learning is and always has been an individual process.

"This is not a whole picture of a student," he said. "This is not a whole picture of a post-pandemic student."

District 211's SAT scores showed 45% of students met or exceeded standards in English language arts in 2021 compared to 47% in 2019.

For math, 46% of students met or exceeded standards in 2021 compared to 54% in 2019.

Schumacher pointed out the Illinois Report Card shows a statewide decline in math proficiency that was twice that of evidence-based reading and writing.

While identifying all the factors that may be in play in the gap between the two years is difficult, classroom instruction during the current school year has been much different in District 211 than that of last year, Schumacher said.

"There's certainly less disruption than last year," he said.

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