Recent test scores in math for both Evanston eighth graders and for juniors at Evanston Township High School taking the SAT have shown some concerning declines since the pandemic hit in 2020, according to a data report presented to the ETHS board on Monday.

Reading performance, on the other hand, largely remained stable over the last several years, Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction Pete Bavis said. Some of those scores did decrease slightly, but only math achievement fell in a statistically significant way.

“I’ll be blunt: the pandemic did not change reading achievement, but it has had a significant impact on math in a very real way,” Bavis told the board at its meeting Monday, Feb. 6. “And it’s long-term.”

As shown in the graphs below, this year’s seniors, along with other recent graduating classes, remained relatively consistent in their performances on the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test that all eighth graders take each spring.

But, when you fast forward to their scores on the math portion of the SAT, taken during the Covid-19 pandemic in the spring of their junior year, students dipped in their achievement compared to pre-pandemic averages.

Bavis attributed the steady reading scores to literacy being “baked in” to the skills that students learn during their early years working through elementary and middle school, while math development is much more dependent on a sequence of specific courses and lessons, from pre-algebra all the way through calculus.

“So what does this mean? It means that we really have to focus on math. We have to partner with our provider districts – both District 65 and our private parochial folks – to really look at, sequentially, what’s going on,” Bavis said.

“Incoming [cohorts] do not look great. We’ve looked at the incoming cohorts that were disrupted by the pandemic, and we see that that’s going to have a long-term impact on math instruction at the high school.”

ETHS board members and administrators discuss concerns about declining math performance during their latest meeting Monday, Feb. 6.
ETHS board members and administrators discuss concerns about declining math performance during their latest meeting Monday, Feb. 6. Credit: Duncan Agnew

Responding to the data presented by Bavis, several board members noted that this dynamic reflects what they have known for a long time now: that the pandemic disrupted learning, especially math, and that systemic gaps in educational opportunities and access by race, income and ability status still remain prevalent today.

Considering those factors, the board ultimately pushed Bavis and the rest of the ETHS administration to use this time as a chance to redesign and rethink how the high school teaches math.

“Math doesn’t have to be something that is so formalized or always as sequentialized as we’ve been conditioned to think it is,” board member Mirah Anti said. “Our culture consists of people who learn and do math in different ways around our world, so I feel like this is a moment for math.”

ETHS is also in the midst of rolling out a new data science course as an alternative to the traditional math pathway that the school has always used. Two pilot class sections are currently taking the course this year, and student interest in the class and enrollment “has grown fourfold” for next school year, according to Bavis.

“We went from two teachers, and now we’re going to have to have three teachers,” Bavis said. “So you’re seeing a movement. Our students are voting with their feet. If we try to fit it in or carve a space out in algebra, it’s not going to happen. What we need is to completely innovate and be a visionary about it.”

That approach is “groundbreaking” in math, Bavis added, and ETHS is working with state education officials and local colleges to certify data science as a course that can count toward college and career readiness, and ultimately college credit, as well.

“We’re definitely trying to work toward creative solutions to close a lot of the gaps that we’re seeing. We’re putting students in a place where they have to be mathematicians, and they have to be creative in order to understand the content,” Associate Principal for Instruction and Literacy Kiwana Brown said.

“We’re trying to make education matter again, and that’s the biggest thing, especially with cell phones and all these other things that are much more engaging for students.”

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Duncan Agnew

Duncan Agnew covers Evanston public schools, affordable housing, City Hall and more for the RoundTable. He also writes long-form investigations, features and the morning email newsletter three times a...

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  1. Thanks for the analysis. A disturbing fact on this is that SAT scores are normalized as far as I know. Said another way, SAT test scores don’t remain stagnant to show how much somebody knows – they adjust slightly year-over-year to make certain scores the same percentile (generally) year after year. So, while students nationwide were impacted by school closures, ETHS student test scores would actually remain the same if their achievement decline mirrored those seen nationwide. But because the math scores went DOWN, that seems to suggest ETHS students fell behind MORE than the typical students saw during the pandemic. Unless the SAT abandoned this practice, but I looked up some percentiles that show a score of 550 in math was approximately the 61st percentile year-after-year (2016-2021). And then in 2022, the College Board shows 550 in math as 62nd percentile (basically unchanged). So, the drop is perhaps more severe than appears at initial glance since the 62nd percentile nationwide is “easier” to achieve (from a knowledge perspective) than it was pre-pandemic.

    I have no idea if MAP test scores are normalized or not.

    Pete Bavis does seem on top of it and transparent about things. Not an easy solution and certainly not a one-person solution either.