“I’ll be blunt,” said Assistant Superintendent Pete Bavis.

“The pandemic did not change reading achivement, but it has had a significant impact on math in a very real way.”

Bavis presented some troubling statistics to the Evanston Township/District 202 Board of Education earlier this month, showing an across-the-board decline in math scores for all student groups since the school went on COVID-related remote learning for parts of 2020 and 2021.

Assistant Superintendent Pete Bavis at school board meeting February 6.

Bavis said the drop in math scores can be seen “in everything from freshmen taking algebra … all the way through our advanced math classes and everything in between.”

The numbers come from standardized MAP tests which are taken by 8th graders before entering high school, and the SATs, taken by high school juniors, and cover several years worth of data.

For example, the mean MAP test scores in math for 8th graders who took the exam pre-pandemic (2019) was 245.6. But for those taking it in the pandemic year of 2020, the mean score dropped to 241.5. But even when kids came back to the building, the downward slope continued, with a mean of 240.0 for those testing during the current academic calendar.

The same trend can be seen in the SATs. For 2020 grads, who took the SAT before schools shut for the pandemic, the mean score was 555.7. For the class of 2022, it was 538.8, and the class of 2023 it dropped to 522.7.

Several questions stand out.

First, why did reading scores stay even, while math declined?

The short answer is that experts really don’t know.

Bavis suggested that unlike reading, which children can practice on their own at home, math instruction is usually more formal, in the classroom.

He noted that the added stress of the pandemic may have compounded some students’ “math anxiety.” And, he indicated that it may have been more of a challenge for teachers to present math instruction via Zoom rather than in person.

The next question is what can be done to reverse the math score decline, and not just test scores for their own sake, but rather scores which indicate students understand the material?

“It requires a different mindset in instruction,” Bavis said, “with a willingness to allow kids to explore.”

For example, ETHS now has a data science class, where students use math to analyze local issues and problems.

A course like that, Bavis said, is a way to “break the mold,” and get students involved in real-life math applications, and not just the same old algebra and geometry required by the state.

And the third question is does the racial achievement gap still exist between white, Black, and Hispanic students, whenever the tests were taken?

The answer there, even when white student results declined as well, is still “yes,” by a fairly large margin, with Black students on average scoring 80 to 90 points lower than whites on the math SATs.

So then what?

Board member Pat Maunsell wondered if this was not “a moment to say ‘blow it up.’ What are we doing wrong?”

Maunsell then said that was a bit too harsh, but still the issue remains “what can we do differently that reaches kids,” particularly kids of color?

Reflecting on the pandemic’s influence on all children, board member Mirah Anti said, “There is a whole new crew of kids who hatched at home, and we really need to figure out a new way” to get them motivated and involved.

Working with numbers, algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and statistics may have to be the place to start.

“This is a moment for math,” Anti said.

Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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