This paper contains all three articles in the RoundTable’s series on student achievement at Evanston/Skokie School District 65 (2001-09) and ETHS School District 202 (2004-09), published in June/July 2010. The articles, by Larry Gavin, are based on extensive reports prepared by Paul Zavitkovsky of the Urban School Leadership Program at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

Rather than analyzing the test results using proficiency benchmarks (e.g., “below standards,” “meet standards,” and “exceed standards”), Mr. Zavitkovsky analyzed the data using normative measures. In other words, he compared how District 65 and 202 students were doing in relation to all other students in the State who took the ISATs (given in 3rd through 8th grades) and the PSAEs (given in 9th through 12th grades). The analyses he performed are similar to those discussed in his research report, “Something’s Wrong with Illinois Test Results,” which he presented to the Illinois Education Research Council in June 2009.

The RoundTable’s series of articles demonstrated that the State’s reporting methods on the ISATs had at least four problems or limitations in assessing student achievement.

First, changes to the test and a low benchmark to meet standards gave a misleading picture of student achievement and growth over time. Students who were performing two full grades below their grade level could still meet ISAT standards. Many students were led to believe they were proficient, when they were not.

Second, using a low “meet standards” proficiency benchmark to measure progress in closing the achievement gap masked what was happening across the full distribution of achievement levels. For example, viewing whether there is an achievement gap when the standard is scoring at or above the nation’s 22nd percentile says nothing about the extent of the gap when the standard is performing at the 50th percentile or at a college readiness level.

Third, the ISAT’s “meet standards” benchmark was grossly misaligned with the proficiencies required to be on track for college readiness. Eighth graders who were at the 22nd Illinois percentile in math met standards on the ISATs. Yet, they needed to be at the 68th Illinois percentile to be on track for college readiness.

Fourth, the ISATs were grossly misaligned with the PSAEs, which used much more rigorous standards. Students who appeared to be doing well on the ISATs at District 65, all of sudden were failing on the PSAEs at ETHS, because the PSAEs had a much higher standard of proficiency. This led to finger-pointing, and each District blaming the other.

The normative data presented in the series of articles show that District 65 students made good progress over the period 2001-2009, but the progress was much less than portrayed by the dramatic increases in the percentage of students “meeting standards” on the ISATs. African American eighth graders – even with high percentages of low-income students – approached the State average in achievement for all students in the State.

There was still a substantial gap in achievement levels, though, when their scores are compared to the very high level of achievement of white students in the District. The gap was more pronounced when it came to measuring whether students were on track for college readiness.

The normative data also show there has been growth in achievement at ETHS when the trend of eleventh graders’ scores is analyzed for the period 2004-2009. While many African American students exceled at ETHS, there was a substantial difference between the average scores of African American students and white students. The data also showed that white students overall appeared to have made slight gains at ETHS between eighth and eleventh grades, while African American students overall showed declines between eighth and eleventh grades in some subjects in some years. The declines, however, were far less than those portrayed by a comparison of the percentage of students “meeting standards” on the ISATs and PSAEs.

This series of articles provided the framework for the District 65 School Board to raise expectations for students and to measure whether students were on track to college readiness.

The articles are available here.

Larry Gavin

Larry Gavin was a co-founder of the Evanston RoundTable in 1998 and assisted in its conversion to a non-profit in 2021. He has received many journalism awards for his articles on education, housing and...