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The Joint District 65 and 202 Committee continued its discussion about “virtual consolidation” at its Sept. 10 meeting. The Committee is includes the superintendents of each District, the chief administrative officer of District 65, and the president and vice president of each Board.

Gretchen Livingston, president of the District 202 Board, opened the discussion saying that the idea about “traditional consolidation” (e.g., a merger of the two school districts) “doesn’t have legs right now.” She added, “We wanted to make crystal clear that the discussion we are having now, for a lack of a better phrase, is ‘virtual consolidation.’”

Based on prior discussions it appears that one main drawback to traditional consolidation is it may require that teachers at District 65 be bumped up to the same pay scale as teachers at District 202. The cost could be as much as $17 million per year.

Jonathan Baum, a member of the District 202 Board, focused on what was meant by the term “virtual consolidation,” which he said has been interpreted by some members in the community to mean one superintendent running both Districts. Members of the Joint Committee clarified that they viewed “virtual consolidation” as involving “a range of possibilities” that might lead to cost efficiencies or academic benefits by consolidating positions or departments or by working together more closely in selected areas.

At this point, there does not appear to be any interest in hiring one superintendent to oversee both school districts. One reason, Board members said, is it would be “problematic” to have one superintendent acting under the direction of two separate Boards.

In framing the discussion on virtual consolidation, Ms. Livingston said the Districts are already working together in many areas. She listed food services, a joint borrowing agreement and the Wellness Committee.

Other members of the committee mentioned the Districts are working together on the Community Legislative Committee; administrators are working more closely on curriculum development and articulation; both Districts are part of a purchasing consortium; both are participants in a risk management consortium; they share legal counsel in appeals of property tax assessment; they are considering retaining the same auditing firm; and they jointly operate Park School.

Members of the committee debated how to go about determining what other areas would be beneficial to work together on. The debate centered on whether to focus for now on specific programs put on the table by members of the committee, or whether to retain a consultant to assess on a broader scale where the Districts might benefit from virtual consolidation.

Areas Put on the Table

Mr. Baum put “research and evaluation” on the table. He said using one department to present the data on student achievement for both Districts may reduce costs, “but more important is the value of operating with the same set of numbers.”

He said in the past the Districts have debated what the results on the Illinois Standard Achievement Test (ISAT, given to third- through eighth-graders) meant and what the results on the Prairie State Achievement Exam (PSAE, given to eleventh-graders) meant.

Katie Bailey, a member of the District 65 Board, said she thought that consolidating research “is best for consistency. …. It just makes a lot of sense.”

District 202 Superintendent Eric Witherspoon questioned whether consolidating the research and evaluation departments would yield financial benefits, saying that District 202’s researchers were already kept busy. He added that District 202 crunched numbers on the PSAEs and District 65 on the ISATs. “We’re not crunching numbers on the same instruments,” he said.

Tracy Quattrocki, president of the District 65 School Board, said the fact the Districts were using two different instruments was a reason for consolidating the research departments. She said the Districts needed to work toward aligning the results of the tests.

Since at least 2006, the proficiency level needed to “meet standards” on the ISATs has been much lower than the proficiency level to “meet standards” on the PSAEs. While ISBE decided in January 2013 to raise the cut scores to “meet standards” on the ISATs, they are still lower than the proficiency level needed to “meet standards” on the PSAEs or to meet benchmarks for college and career readiness. (See sidebar.)

“I think there are ways now to reconcile these tests,” said Ms. Quattrocki.  “That’s one of the low hanging fruit. That’s one of the things we should be looking at in the short term and that would be in my mind a reason to move forward with this.”

In August 2011, the District 65 School Board decided to measure student progress using the 50th percentile (an  indicator of grade-level performance) and the 60th percentile in reading and the 68th percentile in math (indicators of being on track to ACT college readiness  identified by Paul Zavitkovsky of the Urban Education Leadership Program at the University of Illinois-Chicago). These benchmarks are higher than the benchmarks to “meet standards” on the ISATs recently adopted by ISBE.

The 50th percentile is a few points shy of aligning with the benchmark to “meet standards” on the PSAEs.

Ms. Bailey, suggested the Districts could explore a few other areas, in addition to consolidating the research and evaluation departments. She suggested  that the Districts analyze whether they could obtain financial or educational benefits in the way they use substitute teachers. She also suggested looking at a joint effort in addressing the needs of “opportunity youth.”

The Approach

Ms. Bailey suggested the Districts retain a consulting firm to identify other areas that might be candidates for virtual consolidation. “I think we need to spend some money to really determine what we should do. … I think it would be beneficial to determine the financial and education benefits of consolidating other areas.”

District 65 Board member Richard Rykhus said he thought the Boards could, in the short term, pursue opportunities which were put on the table and that made sense. He said the Districts might also benefit by taking a more systemic approach and determining what might make sense over the long term. 

“I’m not sure that has to be a paid study, or if we could leverage resources in the community through Northwestern, for example,” Mr. Rykhus said. “Let’s explore options that don’t cost money first.”

Ms. Livingston said, “I have a fairly strong bias against paying for anything now,” in light of the District’s financial situation.

Ms. Quattrocki said at some point the Districts would probably want to bring in a consultant. She added, though, the Districts would be missing an opportunity if they did not use Northwestern University students to provide research assistance.

Ms. Livingston asked administrators to present a short report that fleshed out positions expressed about consolidating the research and evaluation departments, the use of substitute teachers, and ways to address the needs of opportunity youth. It is anticipated that the Committee will use that report in deciding how to move forward.

New ISAT Cut Scores Still Misaligned With PSAEs and College Readiness

By Larry Gavin

On Jan. 24, 2013, ISBE decided to raise the cut scores (e.g., the proficiency levels) to “”meet standards”” on the Illinois Standard Achievement Test (ISAT) which is given to third- through eighth-graders. ISBE said it raised the cut scores on the ISATs to “”better align”” them with the proficiency levels to meet standards on the Prairie State Achievement Test (PSAE), which is given to eleventh graders. ISBE also says the new cut scores are a “”more accurate”” indicator of college and career readiness.

An internal report prepared by ISBE researchers shows, though, that the new cut scores to “”meet standards”” on the ISATs are not aligned with the cut scores to “”meet standards”” on the PSAEs. Moreover, they are well below the proficiency level needed to be on track to college and career readiness.

Misalignment With the PSAEs

An internal report prepared in early 2012 by Pooja K. Agarwal, Ph.D. and Rense Lange, Ph.D. (both  ISBE employees at the time they prepared their report) identified cut scores to meet standards on the ISATs that they say aligned with the cut scores to meet standards on the PSAEs. The ISAT cut scores they identified correspond to the 51st percentile in reading and the 53rd percentile in math.

In adopting new cut scores to “”meet standards”” on the ISATs in January 2013, ISBE did not adopt the cut scores identified in the Agarwal/Lange report.  Instead, ISBE adopted lower cut scores that corresponded to the 42nd percentile – scores roughly 10 percentile points lower than those needed to align with the PSAEs.

In a separate analysis, Paul Zavitkovsky of the Urban Education Leadership Program at the University of Illinois-Chicago found that the new cut scores to meet standards on the ISATs were approximately 10 percentile points too low to align with the benchmark to “”meet standards”” on the PSAEs.

Well Below College/Career Readiness

In addition, the Agarwal/Lange report found that the PSAE scores that correspond to the ACT’s benchmarks for college and career readiness are at the 65th percentile in reading and the 66th percentile in math.

These are in line with or a little higher than the findings made by Mr. Zavitkovsky with respect to the ISATs. He estimates that eighth-grade ISAT scores that correspond to ACT’s benchmarks for college and career readiness are at the 60th percentile in reading and the 66th in math.

In stark contrast, the new cut scores adopted by ISBE to meet standards in reading and math correspond to the 42nd percentile – 18 percentile points lower for reading and 24 lower for math.

Significantly, a chart contained in the Agarwal/Lange report shows that eighth-graders who scored 267 on the ISATs in math (the new eighth-grade score needed to meet standards) would have only about a 10 percent chance of meeting ACT’s college readiness benchmarks in math in eleventh grade.

ISBE’s Refusal to Produce Studies, Reports

On Jan. 28, 2013, the RoundTable submitted a freedom of information act request to ISBE, asking for all studies used to equate ISAT scores with the cut score to “”meet standards”” on the PSAEs or with the ACT’s benchmarks for college readiness.

ISBE said the Agarwal/Lange report was responsive to the RoundTable’s FOIA request, but it refused to provide any other documents, citing a deliberative process privilege. The RoundTable appealed ISBE’s refusal to the Public Access Counselor of the Office of the Illinois Attorney General. The appeal has not yet been decided.

For a more detailed article on this topic, see “”ISBE Low-Balls New ISAT Cut Scores, Misalignment With PSAE and ACT College Readiness Continues,”” published in the Feb. 28, 2013 issue of the RoundTable.