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About 15 percent of Evanston Township High School freshmen and 7 percent of sophomores – a total of 173 students – needed reading support during the 2009-2010 school year, and efforts to improve their capabilities have met with mixed results, according to a report presented to the School District School Board on Jan. 24.

“Literacy is hugely important to us here at ETHS and we are constantly monitoring the growth of our students and their progress,” said Superintendent Eric Witherspoon. “We’re very determined that students, while they attend ETHS, will continue to show growth in their reading every year.”

He acknowledged, however, that improving the skills of adolescents who are not reading at the expected level is “frustrating” and that the District has encountered difficulties “accelerating” the growth of these students. “We still have work to do,” he said.

Reading Support for Students

Students entering ETHS take the EXPLORE or the MAP test, or both, in eighth grade to determine their reading level. All students scoring below the 50th percentile on these tests receive some kind of additional reading instruction in their freshman year.

Special education students receive additional reading instruction separate from their coursework through their senior year. Other students still requiring additional support in reading through their senior year are assigned to “enriched” English classes which emphasize reading and writing skills, Dr. Witherspoon said.

Students at ETHS receive reading support according to the following structure:

Ninth grade students who score between the first and 29th percentiles on the EXPLORE/MAP tests are assigned to a three-credit, two-period class that utilizes an intensive reading intervention program. Developed by Scholastic, the READ 180 program is designed, according the system’s website, to help “educators confront the problem of adolescent illiteracy and special needs reading … through differentiated instruction, adaptive and instructional software, high-interest literature, and direct instruction in reading, writing, and vocabulary skills.”

Ninth grade students who score between the 30th and 49th percentiles on the EXPLORE/MAP tests are assigned to a two-credit, one-period Freshman Reading class that emphasizes “skills-based mini lessons, small group guided reading, explicit vocabulary instruction and independent reading, according to the report, presented by Literacy Coordinator Regina Armour.

Sophomores, whose placement in reading support is based on their performance in their Freshman English class can be enrolled for additional support in 2 Humanities Enriched, a two credit course that focuses on English and history.

Beyond the sophomore year, special education students receive additional support in reading, including READ 180 and another Scholastic program, System 44.

According to the report, 91 percent of ETHS students receiving reading support during the 2009-2010 school year were black or Hispanic; 89 percent of them came from low income households and 31 percent had an Individual Education Plan (IEP).

Measuring Results of Support Efforts

Administrators use two different measures to evaluate student progress in reading, according to the report: the Gates-MacGinitie Reading Test “which provides a measure of vocabulary, reading comprehension and total reading;” and SRI data, which indicates improvement in lexile scores. Lexile scores measure reading difficulty of particular material and also indicate a student’s ability to read that material.

With the Gates-MacGinitie test, the target improvement is at least one grade level: the SRI data specifies a desired annual growth for high school students of 50 points or more.

Results for different groups and assessment categories varied widely.

For example, 71 percent of students in 2 Humanities Enriched showed an increase of at least one grade level in comprehension, whereas only 33 percent showed an increase of at least one grade level in vocabulary.

Students in the READ 180 category, those testing below the 29th percentile, had the worst results: Only 31 percent had greater than one grade level improvement in vocabulary and only 36 percent had greater than one grade level improvement in comprehension.

Special education and bilingual students using READ 180 also struggled with vocabulary improvement: Only 29 percent of special education students made more than one grade improvement and only 25 percent of bilingual students made a similar improvement.

Students in Freshman Reading (those who have test scores between the 30th and the 49th percentile) had the most consistent and positive results: Fifty-six percent achieved greater than one grade level in both vocabulary and comprehension.

Even more concerning, administrators said, is that some students are not making any progress at all, and in some cases, falling even further behind. Forty-six percent of students in 2 Humanities Enriched students showed no growth at all or even “negative growth” in vocabulary, and one third of READ 180 students fell behind in both comprehension and vocabulary. Even 20 percent of the Freshman Reading students fell behind in both areas.

The lexile score data, calculated only for students in READ 180, indicated similar mixed results: Forty-four percent of students showed an increase of 50 points or more, but 39 percent showed a decrease in the lexile level they were able to read.

“While we acknowledge this phenomenon of negative growth,” said Ms. Armour, “we also know there are variables to that … students’ lack of investment, not taking the assessment seriously, not feeling good on the day they are assessed. However, we do not and cannot ignore it because it’s indicative of other things … lack of motivation and lack of investment.”

Longitudinal Analysis and PSAE Performance

Administrators also reported on another longitudinal analysis by following the 127 students enrolled in READ 180 or Freshman Reading during the 2007 – 2008 school year. By the time they were juniors in the spring of 2010, 100 took the Prairie State Achievement Examination (PSAE). Administrators said that the number had been reduced to 100 because of off-campus placement or students’ leaving the District.

Of the one hundred taking the PSAE, only eight of them met standards.

“I’m really concerned about [this]”, commented Board member Mary Wilkerson. “Are they so far below that we couldn’t bring them up or are we whistling in the wind? … What kind of progress are we making?”

“The PSAE is a rigorous test … it’s
asking students to be strong achievers,” said Dr. Judith Levinson, director of research, evaluation and assessment at ETHS. She pointed out that other data on the students indicated that more than half of them were taking regular (Level 2) or honors-level classes by junior year, but acknowledged “that some of the data indicates that we need to go in and monitor … students a long time … They are managing in the system; they’re just not managing on this test.”

Ms. Wilkerson and other Board members did not appear satisfied with this response. “They’re in Level 2 courses,” said Ms. Wilkerson, “but how are they performing? … Are we monitoring that or are they just there?”

“We can still get kids reading on level who may not [meet standards] on the PSAE,” said Dr. Witherspoon. “If we get them reading on level, then they’ll have a life skill they can use.”

“While it’s very disappointing that we haven’t gotten 100 percent of these kids growing a year in a year, the ones who are … does have some significance. What we have to figure out is why is (the reading intervention) working for some of them and not for others.”

Board Response

Board members Martha Burns and Gretchen Livingston also questioned the value of the outside consultant, James “Jimi” Cannon, who featured prominently in the report as providing support to the reading program.

Dr. Witherspoon said that Mr. Cannon had visited the school 12 times in the 2009-2010 school year and “provided professional development and analysis.”

“I am curious about what we know about his success … whatever he’s doing here doesn’t seem to be taking,” said Ms. Livingston. “Has he achieved measurable success somewhere else? If we’re going to continue to use him, I’d like to know what basis we have for doing that.”

Dr. Witherspoon told The RoundTable that “Mr. Cannon is a consultant providing professional development for teachers teaching literacy intervention and Humanities Enriched courses. He was recommended by Dr. Dick Streedain of National Louis University as someone who is well versed in reading strategies and best practices in Adolescent Literacy. He was interviewed by Dr. Laura Cooper [retired Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction] and Ms. Armour before his services were solicited by ETHS.”

Dr. Witherspoon said that in the past two years Mr. Cannon has provided workshops on literacy strategies to teachers, coached literacy coaches, and he has helped ETHS promote their school wide literacy efforts.  Mr. Cannon receives a stipend of $1,200/day for each of 10 days for 2010-11.

“We’re not getting sustained, measurable gains in the performance,” said Board member Mark Metz. “What I’m looking for is a little more specificity in what we’re going to do to get these trends moving in the right direction.”

Future Plans

Ms. Armour said that the reading program will be “moving in the direction of using the MAP test for evaluation … instead of Gates (MacGinitie) … the MAP tells us where students are … Their individual strengths … challenges, more discrete data, more reports we can use with students to increase their investment.

“We need to move to monitoring individual student growth by proficiency level,” said Dr. Diep Nguyen, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction. She emphasized that the expectations for growth and need for support for a student reading below the 30th percentile “with a lot of social-emotional baggage” would be different than a student at the 49th percentile who just needs “a little umph” to move ahead.”

Dr. Nguyen said she concurred with Ms. Armour that using MAP testing would be helpful to more fully personalize literacy support strategies.

“Any effective intervention program I’ve worked with,” Dr. Nguyen continued, “tracked kids at the individual level. We have a good structure for what an effective reading intervention program should look like. We need to work with teachers to make sure that each structure works the students as hard as they can.”