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Illinois high schools closed by COVID-19 reopened Wednesday for the SAT test. Critics say seniors don’t need the ‘additional stress’ and the exam should be waived.

Chicago Tribune logo Chicago Tribune 9/23/2020 By Karen Ann Cullotta, Hannah Leone, Chicago Tribune
a group of people that are talking to each other: Neuqua Valley High School students arrive at the Naperville school to take their SAT tests on Sept. 23, 2020. © Antonio Perez / Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune/TNS Neuqua Valley High School students arrive at the Naperville school to take their SAT tests on Sept. 23, 2020.

Thousands of high school seniors across the Chicago area, sidelined from in-person learning this fall by COVID-19, are back in their schools Wednesday for the first time in six months.

It’s not for classes, but to sit for the state-sponsored SAT exam.

The free in-school college entrance exam, typically taken by every high school junior in Illinois, was scuttled last spring by the pandemic. Wednesday’s test is one of a series of makeup dates the state’s education agency, using $6.5 million left over from last year, has set for those students, who are now seniors.

a group of people that are standing in the grass: Neuqua Valley High School students arrive to take their SAT tests at the Naperville school on Sept. 23, 2020. © Antonio Perez / Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune/TNS Neuqua Valley High School students arrive to take their SAT tests at the Naperville school on Sept. 23, 2020.

Even though many colleges and universities are dropping SAT and ACT test requirements, at least for 2021 applicants, Illinois high school students must still complete the SAT in order to get their diplomas. The Illinois State Board of Education is not waiving that rule for the class of 2021, though spokeswoman Jackie Matthews said districts can seek exemptions for individual students and that “no student will be prevented from graduating because they were unable to take the SAT.”

And, Matthews said, “more than being a graduation requirement, the opportunity to take a free college entrance exam is a matter of equity. ISBE cannot control or predict the colleges or universities that may or may not require or consider a student’s SAT scores for admission. What we can do is help ensure every public school student in Illinois receives a college reportable score to support their application to the school of their choice, whether this year or in future years.”

a group of people wearing costumes: Seniors arrive early Wednesday morning to take the SAT exam at Neuqua Valley High School in Naperville. High schools across Illinois opened Wednesday for the makeup test, which students were supposed to take as juniors but missed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. © Antonio Perez / Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune/TNS Seniors arrive early Wednesday morning to take the SAT exam at Neuqua Valley High School in Naperville. High schools across Illinois opened Wednesday for the makeup test, which students were supposed to take as juniors but missed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

While Illinois received a waiver from the U.S. Department of Education for accountability assessments for this group of students, Matthews said some research shows that a school day SAT serves as an incentive for students to enroll in college.

As for students having to take the exam in schools that are currently closed to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Matthews said the state board worked with the Illinois Department of Public Health "to produce comprehensive public health guidance for school districts to host students in-person this fall. "

College Board, the company that administers the SAT, said on its website that among sites initially scheduled to administer the tests, 61% are currently open for September and 65% plan to offer October dates, though some have reduced capacity, according to the company’s website.

“We know this is a challenging time for students who want to take the SAT,” Priscilla Rodriguez, the College Board vice president of College Readiness Assessments, said in a statement. “We will continue to work together with educators to provide testing opportunities to students throughout the rest of the fall and academic year.”

a man standing in front of a mirror posing for the camera: Neuqua Valley High School seniors wait in a classroom during SAT testing that went on Wednesday at dozens of Chicago-area high schools. © Antonio Perez / Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune/TNS Neuqua Valley High School seniors wait in a classroom during SAT testing that went on Wednesday at dozens of Chicago-area high schools.

Still, some critics of standardized testing question the wisdom of bringing large groups of students together in schools that are because of COVID-19.

“The utility of the SAT even in normal times has no value, but we’re in a pandemic, and forcing students into school buildings that are closed because of a disease that has taken 200,000 American lives is nuts,” said Bob Schaeffer, interim executive director of the Boston-based FairTest, a standardized testing watchdog group.

“If school buildings are not safe to bring students, teachers and custodians together right now, why are they safe for test taking?" Schaeffer said.

The Chicago Teachers Union, which had threatened to go on strike again before the city retreated on plans to partially reopen schools this fall, is another critic of in-school SAT testing this fall and of using teachers to proctor the exam. The union also cited equity concerns and called for a waiver for Chicago Public Schools.

“Our predominantly Black and Latinx students and their families are facing many economic, social, health, and emotional challenges in this moment. Yet, CPS is still requiring Seniors to take the SAT before they graduate,” the union said in a posting on its website Tuesday. “During this stressful time, CPS should not ask Seniors to endure the additional stress of taking a test where what they have learned takes a back seat to their ability to answer multiple choice questions.”

a group of people standing on a sidewalk: Students arrive to take their SAT tests at Neuqua Valley High School in Naperville early Wednesday. Before they were allowed to enter each student had to read a COVID-19 safety screening sign and answer health questions. © Antonio Perez / Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune/TNS Students arrive to take their SAT tests at Neuqua Valley High School in Naperville early Wednesday. Before they were allowed to enter each student had to read a COVID-19 safety screening sign and answer health questions.

While acknowledging the unusual circumstances, some school officials say their decision to reschedule the SAT for this fall was made after careful consideration, and is in the best interest of students whose lives have been upended during the pandemic.

“The district must continue to keep students on a positive academic trajectory and ensure they have the same post-secondary opportunities as their peers across the country," CPS spokesman James Gherardi said in a statement Tuesday.

“With disruptions to testing last fall due to the work stoppage and last spring due to COVID-19, it’s critically important students have the option of taking the exams this fall to meet critical deadlines,” said Gherardi, adding that for students seeking enrollment in college, "the SAT remains one of the single most important data points schools consider when determining eligibility.”

At Indian Prairie High School District 204, which remains closed to in-person classes, seniors at Waubonsie Valley and Metea Valley high schools in Aurora and at Neuqua Valley High and Wheatland Academy in Naperville will be taking the rescheduled SAT this fall.

In preparation for students' return Wednesday, District 204 Superintendent Adrian Talley said officials have addressed COVID-19 concerns with procedures that were, "vetted by our health and safety committee to ensure the protocols meet DuPage (County) standards keeping our community safe.”

Mundelein and New Trier high schools are among those planning to offer the SAT for the class of 2021 on Oct. 14. New Trier spokeswoman Niki Dizon said seniors at the Winnetka school are “strongly encouraged" to sign up, and those who don’t will be required to take the exam in April with this year’s juniors.

York High in Elmhurst also chose the October date because it “fits best with our return to hybrid learning phases for our juniors and seniors,” said Meredith Sheriff, assistant principal for student services.

Seniors in Arlington Heights-based Township High School District 214 will have the option of taking the SAT on Oct. 27 or in April. The district is limiting the number of students they can test safely within a building at one time, spokesman Dave Beery said.

At Hinsdale Central and South, where students have been doing all remote learning so far this school year, seniors are taking the SAT at its two high schools Wednesday with no more than 12 students in each classroom, officials said. The temperature of every student will be checked as they enter and masks are required, Christopher Covino, assistant superintendent of academics said.

With at least two staff members assigned to proctor in each classroom, Covino said the district did not have trouble finding educators willing to help monitor the students during the exam.

"It’s an all hands on deck effort,” he added.

Hinsdale Central Principal William Walsh said only two of the 673 seniors chose not to take the SAT Wednesday because of concerns about being in school during the pandemic. Three other students were excluded from the in-person test by the school’s health office.

Arwen Pokorny Lyp, principal at Hinsdale South in Darien, said only students “quarantined due to football or other medical reasons” were not participating. A student in South’s football camp had a positive COVID-19 test earlier this month, requiring all 70 students participating in the camp to quarantine until Thursday.

For many of the thousands of students taking the exam this fall, it will be the first time they will have a chance to walk the hallways of their high schools since the pandemic shut-downs last March.

Alexander Alpizar, 17, a senior at Chicago’s Roosevelt High, said he Tuesday that he would feel safe while taking the SAT at his Albany Park school, and wasn’t worried that wearing a mask will be much of a distraction.

The 7:45 a.m. start time was not a big deal, Alexander said, especially as he has been waking up at 6:30 every morning for remote learning this fall.

“It’s all right, but, I mean, it would be nice to go back at some point,” Alexander said.

Naperville Sun reporter Suzanne Baker and Pioneer Press reporters Chuck Fieldman and James T. Norman contributed.

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