By Kelley Elwood

A joint report measuring reading achievement of students across Districts 65 and 202 was presented to the School Boards at a joint meeting held Nov. 9.  It was the first time an achievement report had been prepared jointly by administrators of both Districts.

Results show that just over one-half of all students in kindergarten through 11th grade are meeting benchmarks identified for being on track to college readiness. The report shows a wide disparity between the percentage of white students meeting college readiness benchmarks (CRB) and the percentages of other racial groups meeting that benchmark. A wide disparity also exists when the data is broken down by household income.

The School Boards of Districts 65 and 202 decided in 2014 to take steps to better understand students’ academic performance. An annual “Superintendents’ Joint Achievement Report” was planned, with each year’s report to address a specific area. This first report focused exclusively on the percentage of students on track for college and career readiness in reading.

The report thus goes hand-in-hand with the Joint Literacy Goal adopted by the Boards in January 2013, which is to “ensure that all students are proficient readers and college and career ready by the time they reach 12th grade.” Significantly, the Districts recognize they cannot accomplish this goal alone. They commit to partnering not only with each other, but also “with community organizations, especially those involved in the essential work of early childhood education, to capitalize on every opportunity to meet this goal.

Peter Godard, District 65’s chief of research, accountability and data, and Carrie Levy, ETHS director of research, evaluation and assessment, discussed the methodology used in the report and reported the data. The report shows that

• 54% of incoming kindergarteners met state benchmarks in four or more foundational literacy skills, which are alphabet recognition, phonemic awareness, one-to-one matching, letter sounds and story listening.  District 65 is using a “provisional definition” that kindergarten readiness in reading “requires that a student score at or above the state benchmark (the 50th percentile) based on a norm sample in four of five foundational literacy skills.

• Between 48% and 55% of students in grades 3 through 8 met CRBs in reading on the Spring 2015 Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test. The CRBs for grades 3 through 8 were taken from a 2012 study sponsored by the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA), the owner of the MAP test. District 65 chose not to use the CRBs identified in a more recent June 2015 study sponsored by NWEA. See sidebar.

• 55% of ETHS 12th graders met the ACT’s CRB of 22 in reading. The ACT’s CRB for reading is the score that indicates a student will have a 50% chance of scoring at least a B and a 75% chance of earning at least a C in their social science courses in freshman year in college.

The accompanying chart gives the breakdown for black, Hispanic, white, and low-income students in, kindergarten through 12th grade. Across all grade levels, about 20% of black students, 28% of Hispanic students, and 77% of white students met CRB in reading.  When viewed in the context of income status, about 22% of the students from low-income households met CRB in reading, compared to 73% who were not from low-income households.

 “What has been set forward in the joint accountability report is a very high bar,” said John Price, District 65’s assistant superintendent of schools. “This is not a report about basic proficiency. This is not a report about grade-level standards or averages. This is a report about the percentage of students who are meeting very high college and career readiness benchmarks that have been established by norm studies from across the country. We are setting a very high bar for our students and for ourselves.

“From the report, we take a great sense of urgency,” Mr. Price continued. “There is a tremendous amount of work to be done. This is a systems challenge. Every one of us has an important role, and it will take the very best we have to move the percentage of students who are at college and career readiness across our two systems.”

D65 Work Happening Now

Mr. Price talked about the work District 65 is doing with the general curriculum. “We are working on developing frameworks that will define and align high-quality instruction and supports for all students in all classrooms. This will be a major step forward to create a coherent system, improve coherence of communication across our District, implement supports, and measure our success and progress. The frameworks will benefit our District tremendously.

“We are also working to ensure all of our curricula are rigorous, engaging and challenging for all students,” Mr. Price added. “We are working to provide additional supports. Our strategic plan outlines some important steps that need to be taken.”

Mr. Price said the District has initiated work around “culturally relevant pedagogies; exploring what it means to have and address needs of a diverse student body.” The District is also working on strategies for English language learners. “We are working with new pilots, new approaches, and reinforcing approaches that are working.”

D202 Work Happening Now

Pete Bavis, District 202 assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction, said ETHS is using the Star Assessment and Student Growth Percentiles to look at growth targets and that all teachers have access to those. They are stressing professional development and on Mondays have a “dedicated professional development module” around disciplinary literacy.  The high school is “revising” the Reading Enriched Course that is for students below the 40th percentile in reading, Mr. Bavis said, “to make sure it’s the very best intervention it can possibly be.”  Approximately 100 freshman are entering ETHS below the 40th percentile.

ETHS is also working on culturally responsive instruction, Dr. Bavis said. “We are committed to do whatever it takes.”  The school is working as an advisor to District 65 where needed and is participating in the Evanston Cradle to Career (EC2C) initiative.  Dr. Bavis said ETHS is analyzing the “scope and sequence of skills in all disciplines, which speaks to what is happening in District 65 so we can build the pipeline.”

Joint Efforts in Disciplinary Literacy and Early Childhood

The report notes that the two Districts committed as part of the Joint Literacy Goal to adopt a disciplinary literacy instructional approach that challenges students to read, write, speak, and reason as practitioners in various disciplines. For example, in a science course, students would be encouraged to read, write, question, and think like a scientist. The same applies in a history, literature, and arts course. The idea is that this will deepen students’ knowledge and critical thinking abilities in each subject area.

District 65 is beginning to implement this approach in social sciences and science classes in 6th through 8th grades. District 202 has been implementing the approach.

The report also highlights the need for continued partnership not only between the Districts but also with other community organizations through EC2C. Only 26% of students from low-income families entering kindergarten have the requisite foundational skills, compared to 72% from non-low-income households.

“The gap in skills between incoming kindergarten students from lower-income households and those from higher-income households suggest that children and families in Evanston and Skokie may have unmet needs that, if addressed, could improve the readiness of children for kindergarten,” says the report.

District 65 plans to conduct a Community Needs Assessment regarding the assets and needs of children from birth to 5 and their families, in hopes that it will provide specificity about what services are needed to improve the level of kindergarten readiness of children in the community.

Board Comments

District 202 Board member Doug Holt said the report “is cause for concern and urgency.” He pointed to the chart included in the report showing the percent of students meeting college readiness benchmarks, saying that it appears that across the board, “projections are falling for students that will be college and career ready.”

Mr. Godard responded, “I think you’re seeing a couple of things. One is a measurement artifact; the further away you get from 11th grade, the harder it is to predict. What you are seeing for 11th through 3rd grades is based on MAP scores as opposed to [12th grade] which is based on ACT, which is certain outcome.” Mr. Godard also echoed a comment made by Dr. Bavis that the trend is better framed as “half” of the students are consistently meeting benchmarks, not that projections are falling.

Monique Parsons, District 202 Board member, asked looking at the kindergarten information, “what are we doing to try to prepare our kids to be ready for kindergarten?”

Mr. Price said that Cradle to Career will be an important piece as will reaching out to the preschools.  “We have a focus on summer programming. The most important part of our work is to focus on K-3 curriculum, defining and aligning, what it needs to look like to support all of our students. We also dedicate a vast majority of our interventions to children in kindergarten through 2nd grade during the day.”

Jennifer Phillips, District 65 Board member, also asked about kindergarten preparation, and brought up District 65’s five-year Head Start Grant.  “What curriculum is being used in zero to 3 and 3 to5, and what’s the handshake with the curriculum in District 65?”

Joyce Bartz, assistant superintendent of special services for District 65, responded, “We’ve been using the Creative Curriculum recommended by the State. There are a lot of regulations with the Head Start Grant so we are following those. We are certainly looking closely and assessing what we’re doing and where we might need to make some changes. I agree, zero through 3, we need to take a close look at what is working and what are our assessment procedures.”

Richard Rykhus, District 65 Board member, said, “In District 65, about 80% of our students enter kindergarten having participated in full-day or half-day early childhood programs. I see an opportunity there, if we are not only looking at our curriculum, but an opportunity for providers to align. We talked about this during our strategic plan. The second issue is making sure all of our children have access to early childhood education. We did see in our own achievement report that there was a significantly different level of achievement for kids  who had full or half-day versus none or home-day care type programs; those children didn’t do as well. I think that is in alignment with what D65 is doing.”

“What do we mean by grade-level urgency?” asked Ms. Phillips. “I think it’s important to look at these number as percentages, but I think it’s also instructive to look at them as numbers. Where the rubber hits the road, what are we doing for these kids so they don’t end up in high school at a 4th grade reading level?”

Paul Goren, Superintendent of District 65, responded saying, “In our strategic plan, what we say very explicitly is we are going to focus on the kids with the highest needs. What urgency means is deploying or redeploying resources, so we need to think of where our budget lands for those children. We have a particular focus on K, 1, 2, 3 but that’s not good enough. We have other kids going through the system. As we move forward, we have to think about putting our resources and focus on those children [who are behind in reading].”

Pat Savage-Williams, District 202 Board president, brought up the fact that there are 100 freshmen currently who are functioning below the 40th percentile. “Speaking of urgency, four years of high school goes by very fast. What can we expect to see from these 100 kids?”

Marcus Campbell, ETHS principal and assistant superintendent, said, “we needed to open more sections of the [remedial reading] course. We are also redeploying our intervention team to help students make the transition better. We’ve also looked at what type of enrichments we can offer. We have right now, on the ground, solutions to address the need short term and long term.

“I want to stress Cradle to Career,” said Dr. Eric Witherspoon, District 202 Superintendent. “When a child reaches the high school and is that far behind in reading, it’s really hard to catch up and teach them reading they haven’t learned. I look into the faces of many of those 100 students. They know that they can’t read like other kids; they know they aren’t getting the same classes and materials. We’ve got to figure this out sooner. I’m not pointing a finger. This is a systemic problem and we’ve got to figure this out. When you look into the faces of these kids, it’s heartbreaking.”

District 202 Board member Gretchen Livingston pointed out that many of the questions and responses in the Boards’ discussion highlight the fact that the achievement report is a snapshot in time and does not measure growth or help make inferences about cohorts. She asked how the report could be made more helpful for planning purposes.

Mr. Godard explained that the District 65 Strategic Plan Scorecard and the District 65 achievement report to be presented in January would be better indicators of student growth. Dr. Bavis said that in District 202, the “challenge is to have measures to look at” in measuring growth.

Mr. Rykhus said District 65’s new strategic plan offers a “holistic plan” that supports achievement. “With what we’ve put in place, we have set up a plan for success.”

“The first time I saw the numbers, it was sobering,” said Omar Brown, District 65 Board member. “At the end of the day, I think this is an opportunity for the community. We need to find out how we touch the community. We have to figure out how to get into the households. We need to impact every kid in their homes, where they are. It’s like there are two Districts: kids that are doing it and kids that are not. We need to educate our community on what this is and how they can make a difference.”

Dr. Goren added that in the strategic plan “we engaged the community in … we talk about school climate and the importance of social and emotional growth. We talk about community engagement. We know that beyond our doors we have to reach out, go where the parents are to engage them. Teaching and learning has to be at its highest level. We will reach out and work with the community to make those changes.”