Evanston Township High School students showed disappointing results on the Prairie State Achievement Examination (PSAE) across the board last year, with almost every subgroup showing a decline in scores from the previous years in all three subject areas.

However, student performance on the ACT, which is part of the PSAE, has remained more or less constant for the past several years, leading administrators to look at the WorkKeys part of the test as the culprit for the declining scores.

WorkKeys is a measure of workplace skills, Dr. Judith Levinson, the District’s director of Research, Evaluation and Assessment, said at the Sept. 26 School Board meeting. The material and questions asked are “more applied,” she added.

Dr. Levinson also pointed out that performance on WorkKeys is also now worth a greater percentage of a student’s overall score on the PSAE, compounding the problem.

Average ACT scores for white, black and Hispanic students in the District have consistently exceeded Illinois and national averages for comparable groups; still Board member Gretchen Livingston made her standards for the District clear.

“We’re not about beating an average,” she said. “We’re about excellence.”

However, further examination of the PSAE scores made it clear that such a standard continues to be a challenge. In addition to looking at overall scores on the PSAE, Board members reviewed student performance disaggregated by race and ethnicity as well as special education and economic status, as required by the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).

Only white students met this year’s requirement that 85 percent of students in each subgroup meet or exceed standards on the PSAE. All the other subgroups were far below that level, with the best being 46.6 percent of Hispanic students meeting or exceeding standards in math. And because most scores went down this year, even the “Safe Harbor” provision, which gives credit for 10 percent increases over the previous year scores, did not apply.

Another disappointing area was the consistent disparity on the increase in scores from the EXPLORE test, taken in eighth grade, to the ACT, taken in eleventh grade, between white students, on the one hand, and minority, special education and low-income students on the other. Although all students improve their scores over their high-school career, white, wealthier students come in with higher scores to begin with and improve their scores at about twice the rate of the other groups (a seven-to-eight point increase, as compared with a four-to-five point increase).

Assistant Superintendent Oscar Hawthorne outlined several approaches that the District has taken and will take to improve student achievement, including “a tiered system of support, test prep, improved instructional strategies and monitoring tools in reading, the District’s work on race and equity, effective effort and the restructured Freshman Humanities program.”

Superintendent Eric Witherspoon said, “We have proved that we can increase points with a lot of kids – let’s make sure that we’re doing it consistently with all [of them equally].”

Dr. Levinson’s report did note that although “the gap in achievement in reading and math between white and [minority] black/Hispanic students exists when they enter ETHS as freshmen,” over the past three years, more students were coming into the high school with higher scores on the EXPLORE exam. “The percentage of black students above the 50th percentile has improved markedly since 2007-2008 in reading [from 49% to 67%] and math [from 53% to 65%],” she reported.

Board member Jonathan Baum remarked on this trend and asked about its significance for District 202.

“It’s a strong freshman class,” said Dr. Levinson. She said she felt they had positive potential and acknowledged the “good work being done at District 65.”

Another potentially disappointing statistic, a 2011 graduation rate of 90.1 percent, compared to 92.5 percent in 2010, still exceeded NCLB requirements as well as the Illinois average. Dr. Levinson also said the “state has changed the formula for the graduation rate. … In past years [it] included students who took more than four years to graduate. The new … formula only includes students who graduate within four years from their freshman year.”

Despite this new accounting practice, District 202 is not giving up on students who need more time or a different approach to finish their high school requirements.

Dr. Paula Miller, associate principal of Student Services, said the District is still continuing its interventions in “credit recovery” either within the building or through other approaches.

Related to the problem of students who do not graduate on time was an increase in chronic truancy which went from 4 percent in 2009-2010 to 6.3 percent in 2010-2011.

Mr. Hawthorne said that even though there had been an increase, the District was aware of who all of the chronic truants were and was working with them to correct the problem.