At the District 202 School Board’s Oct. 21 meeting, Board members and administrators heard reports on student achievement and the District’s overall performance in the last academic year.

Carrie Levy, manager of research, evaluation and assessment, presented data from the Annual School Statistical Report, the Illinois District/School Report Card and the Evanston Township High School Report on Student Achievement. The data included results on Advanced Placement (AP) tests, the ACT test for juniors and seniors, the PSAE test for juniors, cohort analyses and graduation rate.

Among the highlights, said Dr. Levy, are

• A high average composite ACT score,

• A 99 percent participation in the  Prairie State Achievement Exams (PSAE) and

• An increased number of students taking at least one AP exam.

The five-year graduation rate for ETHS students is 89 percent. The drop-out rate is 1.3 percent. In response to a question from Board member Doug Holt about the distinction between the two, Dr. Levy said the two are calculated differently.

“The drop-out rate is calculated for students leaving school over a period of one year,” said Ms. Levy. The graduation rate looks at a cohort of students from freshman through senior year and one year beyond that and considers the number of transfers in and out. The drop-out rate, extended over the four or five years of the cohort “becomes cumulative,” said Dr. Eric Witherspoon, ETHS superintendent.

Slow Progress on Some Fronts

Dr. Levy presented information about scores on the PSAE, ACT and other tests and about AP courses and exams. Although there was some improvement in some subgroups, the gap between the high-performing students, most of whom are white and non-low-income, and low-performing students, most of whom are minority and low-income, was reflected in most scores. 

Further, most subgroups, and the District itself, did not make adequate yearly progress (AYP) as defined by the No Child Left Behind Act.

PSAE, juniors: The Illinois State Board of Education administers the PSAE to all 11th-graders in the state. White students at ETHS continue to perform at very high levels, with 93 percent meeting or exceeding standards in reading on the 2013 PSAE. In contrast, only 45 percent of Hispanic students and 34 percent of black students met or exceeded standards in reading on the 2013 PSAE. (See Figure 1.) Math scores showed a similar disparity, with 92 percent of white students, 51 percent of Hispanic students and 36 percent of black students meeting or exceeding standards in math on the PSAE. (See Figure 2.) Both of these charts show that disparity as a pattern reflected over the years.

On a positive note, the percentages of black, Latino and white students at ETHS who met or exceeded standards on the 2013 PSAE were higher than their respective counterparts statewide, said Dr. Levy. On a statewide basis, 55 percent of all students in the state met or exceeded standards in reading on the 2013 PSAE. For math, the percentage was 52 percent.

ACT, seniors: Many ETHS seniors take the ACT test, a college entrance exam. ETHS seniors taking the ACT without accommodations registered the highest average ACT composite score in ETHS history – 23.9 – Dr. Levy said. The average composite score for all ETHS students, including the approximately 12 percent taking the test with accommodations, was 23.2. 

College-readiness, seniors and juniors: Fifty-six percent of ETHS seniors taking the ACT met the ACT’s college-readiness benchmark in reading, and 60 percent did so in math. ACT defines its college-readiness benchmarks as  the minimum score needed to indicate a 50 percent chance of obtaining a “B” or higher and a 75 percent chance of obtaining a “C” or higher in a comparable college course.

ETHS did not break out the percentage of seniors meeting ACT’s college readiness benchmarks by ethnicity. Up until this year, though, ISBE reported the percent of black, Hispanic and white eleventh-graders who met ACT’s college readiness benchmarks. This data was available because eleventh-graders take the ACT as part of the PSAE test.

Figures 3 and 4 show the percentages of ETHS 11th-grade students, disaggregated by ethnicity, meeting ACT college-readiness benchmarks in reading (Fig. 3) and math (Fig.4)  from 2009 through 2012. These numbers show, for example, that in 2012, 88 percent of white students, 40 percent of Hispanic students and 21 percent of black students met ACT college-readiness benchmarks in math; reading scores were similar.

Growth from EXPLORE to ACT: One common way to measure the growth of a group of students is to measure the increase between the group’s average score on the EXPLORE test and the group’s average score on the ACT test. EXPLORE and ACT are part of the same family of tests, and the scoring system is expected to show that a student’s score will increase between the two tests.

Disaggregated by ethnicity, the gains – the “learning trajectory” – showed by the students taking the EXPLORE test (as eighth-graders) in 2009-10 and the ACT test (as eleventh-graders) in 2013 were significantly different among ethnic groups. In reading, for example, black students showed an average gain of 4.1 points, from 13.9 on EXPLORE to18 on ACT. Similarly, Hispanic students on average gained 5 points, from 14.3 to 19.3. White students, though, showed a higher gain of 8.5 points, from 19.1 on EXPLORE to 27.6 on ACT. (See figure 5.) 

AP: The number of ETHS students who take AP classes and AP exams has increased over the past four years. In 2012-13, 1,293 exams resulted in scores of 3 or higher and 843 exams resulted in scores of 4 or higher – the highest number of 3s, 4s and 5s in ETHS history.

Figure 6 shows the percentage of students, by ethnicity, who took an AP test between 2009 and 2013. The percentage of black and Hispanic students who took an AP test has increased during that period.

Administrators recommended that ETHS continue to “grow the AP program, continue to work on the gap in gain between the eighth-grade EXPLORE and 11th- and 12th-grade ACT tests.”

Another recommendation was to try to get all students to score at least a composite of 20 on the ACT portion of the PSAE and at least a 5 on the Work Keys portion. The target of 20 is somewhat lower than the ACT’s composite benchmark of 21.5 for college readiness.

Board Discussion: Accelerating Learning
Trajectories Toward College Readiness

The slight dips in some scores evoked some concerns, but the persisting gap in scores between white and minority students, Board members said, was “discouraging,” and it remained the focus for much of the evening’s discussion.

ACT expects a 5-point growth from EXPLORE to ACT for students on track to college readiness. While most white students come into ETHS well on track to college and career readiness, the same is not true of many minority students. Students who are better prepared grow at a faster pace than other students. Conversely, the growth of students who start ETHS with low scores on the EXPLORE test is less than those students who score higher on EXPLORE.

In short, the average growth rate for minority students is less than the growth rate for white students.

The ACT publication “How Much Growth Toward College Readiness Is Reasonable to Expect in High School?” reported that “students who were on target [for college readiness] in eighth grade demonstrated more growth” between freshman and senior years of high school than students who were not already on track. Similar results were published in ACT’s study “The Forgotten Middle.”

Conversely, students entering high school already behind have greater difficulty in making it to the college-readiness benchmark by junior year. The study “Growth Toward College Readiness” concludes that high school may be too late for most students who are substantially below college-readiness benchmarks: “Waiting until high school to address preparation gaps is too late for the majority of students who have fallen behind …”

The gap in learning trajectories between well-prepared and less-prepared students, Jonathan Baum said, “underscores the need to work with District 65 to have this continuous process that begins in preschool and runs through 12th grade.” He said if the two Districts worked together so that more students came prepared to ETHS, “we will also see a reduction in the gap in growth, based on race, from EXPLORE to ACT. Does that make sense?”

“Yes,” said Dr. Levy, and Superintendent Eric Witherspoon added, “A lot of sense.”

Another ACT publication, “Getting Students on Track to College and Career Readiness,” describes some of the challenges faced by students who are not on track by eighth grade: “Closing students’ preparation gaps relative to college and career-readiness requires students who are academically behind to grow faster than students who are ahead of them. The lagging students must do double duty, catching up on content they missed earlier while mastering newly taught curriculum.” Further: “Preparation gaps are often based on broad deficits in vocabulary and knowledge that take time to make up, not just a handful of discrete skills that can be quickly acquired.”

Addressing the Gap

Ms. Savage-Williams said, “I appreciate that you’re trying to get students to score 20 on the ACT. Given the pattern [of low scores for most minority students], when do you think that might happen? Next year?”

“This is really worrisome,” said Dr. Witherspoon. “The gap is so wide – even when the students enter high school. I really think that we need to be – and I think we are – doing everything we can possibly do to accelerate the learning of students when they come to the high school, no matter how wide the gap is. I think we need to be doing everything we can to have high expectations for all students and find ways to make sure students are getting very challenging courses – but then see that they are getting the support they need to accelerate that learning. I don’t think we should ever sit back and say, ‘Well, they came in with a really wide gap and there’s not much we can do about it.’ I think that would be malpractice on our part.

“At the same time, I think that we do need to be really looking as a community – with both school districts and in the community at large [to consider] ‘How do we as a community do a better job, or a more efficient job, of wrapping our arms around all the students in the community and closing that gap or keeping it from developing or widening at earlier and earlier ages?’ I don’t say that as a way to deflect from the high school. I just say it as a way to remind ourselves that this has to do with the lives of the children, and we are really as a community going to have to get a lot more energized and aggressive about it.”

Something ‘Big, Bold and Agressive’

Assistant Superintendent/Principal Marcus Campbell said, “And I want to add to that. I’ve been having some conversations with staff and administrators and community members, and I’ve been asking them, ‘What is it going to take?’ We sit and look at these numbers. We agonize and we plan and we do what we can. … We need a game-changer, in the sense that it will get everybody’s attention. I’ve got things I’m thinking about for the spring semester, sort of a call to arms. I’ve got a lot of the black men on our staff looking at this, and you can expect something from us – big, bold and aggressive – within the next few months, because something has to be different as we look to approach and attack this issue.”

“I appreciate that,” said Ms. Savage-Williams, “because if we continue to do the same thing, we’ll get the same results. This is certainly the case since I’ve been in Evanston, for decades. But looking at these numbers, it is really disheartening. And if we look at black males, they continue to be at the bottom of the well. … It just doesn’t go away. So I would challenge every single person at ETHS. No matter what their position, we are all educators here. … This is our biggest challenge.”

Student Board Representative Russell Fillmore Brady said he wished to caution the Board on relying too much on test scores to assess student achievement. “I feel that the way we respond to low test scores is to make more people take AP tests … and have kids do better on tests. … [Test scores] should not be the only indicator of academic success. There should be different ways of monitoring success.”

In response, Board President Gretchen Livingston said some reports include other areas of high school life. “I think you’re [looking] for a more holistic approach.”

Ms. Livingston said since one of the Board goals is to measure ETHS against other, similar high schools, “I would expect that next year, if not sooner, we’ll have a way to stack up against other area high schools and compare [results] in key areas.”

She also said she would like to have the concept of “expected growth” made clearer and would like to hear about predictive analyses. “I want to work more effectively with District 65 to get at this whole continuum of progress,” she said.

A ‘Bold New Initiative’ Coming

“Expect some bold initiative coming forward in the community at some time,” said Dr. Witherspoon, adding that it would be “a collective-impact initiative that  … we hope we’ll be rolling out in the next few months.”

“I applaud that … big, bold game-changer, and I’m excited at the prospect of receiving that recommendation,” said Mark Metz. He added, “It’s fun to celebrate the successes – that we’ve gotten better, but you just can’t dodge the devastation that you see in those numbers. … I know the trajectory problem: If you come in [with low scores] the [learning] trajectory is not as steep. We cannot let that be an excuse. We have to find a way to take that [low trajectory] and give these kids more, whatever it takes. We have to call in the parents, the faculty, the Board – everybody in the community.” He said the day the Board receives scores “is a bad day for me every year … because I see some kids … just left behind.”

Bill Geiger said that even though he finds the numbers “terribly disheartening … I remain optimistic because I think what we see so often is that when we do focus … our resources, we can move the needle. Not to make it seem easy, not to make it seem as though we’ve not tried before, but when I heard you talking about  being bold … It starts with a bold challenge to the Board. We are accountable to the community. Linking with District 65 is critically important. … I think we need to challenge every organization in the community to join this.”

“I’m not going to rehash what everyone said about being discouraged,” said Scott Rochelle. “One thing that does encourage me is a new focus on community outreach – being accountable 360. … We’re searching in new places for the culprit and how to solve the problem. We can only do so much in the [school] building, but we can be such a resource outside the building, as we’ll help [students] overcome things that are real-life challenges. I’m encouraged by that.”

Doug Holt said the gap is a “collective-action problem. I hope that we’ll make some real changes.” He said one of the problems might be a “tutor gap,” which the school could address. He also suggested looking around for models of schools that have successfully addressed the achievement gap and for funding from foundations that support efforts to address the gap.

Board member Jonathan Baum asked about the breakdown by ethnicity of students in special education, saying, “In ‘instructional’ programs [in special education] there is a massive racial gap in enrollment: Sixty-eight percent of the students are black, 20 percent are Latino and 9 percent white. Student enrollment in the ‘resource’ program is reflective of the student body as a whole. What is the difference, and how does the demographic gap relate to that?”

Dr. Peter Bavis, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, said the difference “pretty much has to do with [providing] the [federally mandated] least restrictive environment [to students]. The instructional programs have self-contained classrooms and the resource program is pretty much full-inclusion.”

Assistant Superintendent/Principal Marcus Campbell offered a stronger interpretation of the disparity. “This is the age-old question of disproportionality in special education which, unfortunately, we have represented at ETHS,” he said, “so our self-contained programs have more blacks. This is something we’re looking at: how these students get referred in, and we’re looking at guidelines from the state regarding RTI [response to intervention, a state-mandated program].

“But we have a glaring fact … that the national trend for disproportionality – particularly with black males – in [special] education, is here at ETHS.”

Mr. Baum said, “So we don’t know how much of that is need, how much is over-identification and how much is maybe something else in between – perceiving a need because it’s colored by a perception about certain groups in our society,” said Mr. Baum.

Mr. Campbell agreed.

Mr. Baum asked, “Do we have programs targeting the way to raise these students’ scores?”

Mr. Campbell said the high school does have such programs and said he would provide further information about them.

Discussion with Dr. David Figlio

At the District 202 School Board’s Oct. 21 meeting, Board President Gretchen Livingston asked Dr. David Figlio to give his opinion about the test results. Dr. Figlio is an Evanston Township High School parent and the director of Northwestern University’s Institute for Policy Research. He is conducting an analysis of the freshman year restructuring at ETHS.

In the context of the data presented at that meeting, Dr. Figlio told the Board he felt they should pay less attention to the gap between the EXPLORE and ACT scores and focus more on getting students to take AP courses and tests.

With data shared by School District 65, Dr. Figlio said, “”We can see how kids are progressing over their tested academic life, and this can provide nuances. … A quarter of the ETHS student body is in the top 5 percent nationally.

“”I want to echo, as a scholar and as an Evanstonian, both how important it is for this community to be focused on ensuring [high achievement]. … Rather than gaps, I like to talk about opportunities and excellence for all. … There is a number I hope you’ll fixate less on and … one number I hope you fixate more on, based on my reading of scholarship in this area: Fixate extra hard on the number of students who are taking or attempting to take AP classes and the number of students succeeding in AP classes. There’s consensus in the scholarly literature that even the mere attempt at an AP class or classes seems to send kids on the type of trajectory we’re hoping for.””

Studies have shown that minority students who take AP classes  – even if they scored only a 1 or a 2 (out of 5) on an AP test are “”going to college at much higher rates and succeeding in college at much greater rates – particularly in four-year colleges and universities,”” Dr. Figlio said.

That trajectory of getting into and being successful in college, Dr. Figlio said, is self-generated in part, because students begin to think of themselves as college material. He said some students who take AP tests choose not to have their scores sent to any colleges. But when students select colleges to receive their scores, that is one indication of a trajectory of success. “”When you take an AP class, you’re saying, ‘I’m a student who has college aspirations,”” he said, adding he hoped “”we can start to see that ETHS students are starting to experience/expand themselves in that way…””

Dr. Figlio seemed to disagree with Board members’ concerns about the gap in the gain on scores between the EXPLORE and ACT tests: “”It’s not just that students who start at deficit levels are expected to have deficit trajectories throughout high school, but it’s even more than that,”” he said.

“”Even if the groups of students (the low-achievers and the high-achievers) are proceeding at the same level, the learning trajectory for the low-achieving students may seem smaller, because they started so far back and the distribution at the top is so stratified. … And even if the [low-achieving students] are proceeding at a greater trajectory… it’s going to look like we see that gap,  Dr. Figlio said.

“”That’s why every other black/white gap mentioned should have your undivided attention. [The gap between] EXPLORE and ACT is the one that deserves less hand-wringing.””

Mary Gavin

Mary Gavin is the founder of the Evanston RoundTable. After 23 years as its publisher and manager, she helped transition the RoundTable to nonprofit status in 2021. She continues to write, edit, mentor...