What Northwest suburban SAT scores show about pandemic's impact, schools' recovery

The Northwest suburbs are home to the state's two largest high school districts, whose SAT data in the new Illinois School Report Card reflects the pandemic's complicated impacts on education and the early recovery from them.

Joshua Schumacher, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction for Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211, said educators already knew the pandemic affected different people in different ways. But the new data is yet another resource to help districts identify individual student needs and create programs of support for them, he said.

"I think we learned a lot about our educators and students over the past three years," Schumacher said.

District 211 has Conant, Fremd, Hoffman Estates, Palatine and Schaumburg high schools. Each school's individual student population groups have their own trajectories on the SAT score data from pre-pandemic 2019 testing to the more recent scores of 2021 and 2022.

Taking District 211 as a whole, the average SAT reading scores were 526.6 in 2019, 527.5 in 2021 and 521.7 in 2022. Average math scores were 551.2 in 2019, 534.5 in 2021, and 529.7 in 2022.

Neighboring Northwest Suburban High School District 214's Buffalo Grove, Elk Grove, Hersey, Prospect, Rolling Meadows and Wheeling high schools also have their own paths through the last three years of SAT data.

Overall, District 214's average reading scores were 530.2 in 2019, 531.3 in 2021 and 518.9 in 2022. Average math scores were 546 in 2019, 527.1 in 2021 and 512.6 in 2022.

"We know that students who have multiple at-risk factors were most impacted by the pandemic, including higher levels of absences and lower grades," said District 214 Communications Coordinator Stephanie Kim, addressing the factors affecting the scores and other aspects of students' academic progress.

The district responded with increased staffing, expanding access to social-emotional counseling, tutoring programs and classroom interventions, she said.

Kim and Schumacher also addressed how preparations for the SAT may be changing going forward.

"Beginning this academic year we are integrating cost-free opportunities for SAT review programs into the school day during study halls," Kim said. "In years past, SAT review programs only occurred after school for an additional fee."

However, the pandemic also brought to light questions about the SAT's usefulness as an assessment of college-readiness, she said.

"Students taking the SAT last school year experienced disruptions in learning as well as significant disruptions in their normal lives that have led them to challenge where and how they learn, as well as an overall nationwide decline in college enrollments," Kim said. "While schools across the state are investing in interventions to mitigate lost opportunities for student learning, the change in the (SAT's) currency as part of the college admissions process may also be having an impact on its importance to students."

She suggested better predictors of college readiness might be seen in the more than 82% of District 214's last graduating classes who engaged in such early college experiences as Advanced Placement and dual-credit classes, along with a dramatic decrease in the need for remediation at the community college level.

Schumacher said this year's juniors will be the last to take the long-employed paper version of the SAT exam. This year's sophomore ultimately will take a digital version.

Though the College Board - creator of the SAT and other college-readiness programs - has told school districts it believes the scores before and after the change will be comparable, one difference that's already been recognized in the short time since school officials got a glimpse of the digital format is that the reading passages are shorter, Schumacher said.

While the SAT scores before and after the advent of remote learning already are being used as a measure of the pandemic's impact, the change in the test's format could be another variable to take into account when comparing different years, he said.

Both high school districts agreed it was too early to say whether the educational disruptions experienced by students who were in junior high or elementary school at the time of the pandemic might show in SAT scores and other measures of academic progress for years to come.

"I would be hesitant to put a time frame on the impacts of the pandemic," Schumacher said.

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