About 125 people attended the Dec. 14 District 65 School Board meeting in protest of or concern about the low achievement of many black students, and a handful attended the Jan. 25 meeting to hear the District’s Achievement and Accountability Report. One person spoke during public comment, addressing the achievement gap between white and minority students.

Even before the presentation of the report, two Board members and Superintendent Paul Goren spoke of the District’s and the Board’s concern about the continued gap in achievement between white and minority students.

Board member Richard Rykhus said, “When we look at the achievement gap in District 65, it was not improving over the last several years. There has been an enormous achievement gap under the previous administration, under the current administration, under prior Boards, under the current Board.” He said there might have been a “misperception” that progress had been made under the previous administration, “but you can see right here in the Board packet that simply was not the case.

“It was very painful to hear the stories [at the Dec. 14 Board meeting],” Mr. Rykhus continued, “because I am the father of an African American son, and I saw in the people’s stories and experiences a lot of what I observed and what I have seen my son experience. … What I want to be clear about is this Board’s commitment to really dealing with the achievement gap … and doing everything in our power to move this forward, and I think the administration is fully committed.”

Board President Tracy Quattrocki said that some of the parents and community members who came to the last Board meeting asked for specific information about black student achievement and other issues. That information has been provided by the District in a Preliminary Report of Black Student Achievement. She said, “They also asked for a Board meeting to be dedicated to the topic,” and that meeting is scheduled for April 25.

Dr. Goren said the report is “sobering in terms of overall performance, yet shows what we hope is a leveling of performance and a slight uptick after four consecutive years with decreases in performance.”

He also said it is important to “look at achievement gaps writ large, as many of our Hispanic and Latino students are struggling as well. …

“We are focused on literacy improvement, interventions for children with high needs, collaboration with Evanston Township High School and community agencies and institutions, continuing our commitment to social and emotional learning, embracing culturally relevant pedagogy, and expanding the diversity of our staff.”

Dr. Goren said by the end of the school year or the end of summer, the District will have several things in place: interventions for struggling students, including those reading at or below the 25th percentile and those between the 26tht and 50th percentiles; an expansion of culturally relevant curricula; and an active school climate team. He also said, “By the end of the school year we will convene a group of students of color – fourth- and fifth-graders, seventh- and eighth-graders and students from ETHS – to engage student voices on next steps.”

A Hopeful ‘Flattening’

Peter Godard, chief officer of research, Accountability and Data, presented the report, digging out positive nuggets in an otherwise somber report: the downward trend of scores occurring over the past four years may have plateaued in 2014 and 2015; the percent of students meeting “expected student growth” has increased and is about the same for most subgroups, although a wide achievement gap between white students and minority students remains; fewer students are entering kindergarten prepared for it; and poverty remains a challenge tied to achievement.

Most of the comments focused on the effects of poverty and race, and the achievement gap itself, which extends down to students entering the District’s kindergarten classes.

“This is a sobering report,” said Dr. Goren.

Yet Mr. Rykhus said he felt the report provided a “great overview” and said, “When I see the expected gains that you’ve highlighted, that’s promising for many of the kids in the District.”

Growth, Gains and College-readiness

Mr. Godard offered the Board four “headlines” of the report:

The decreasing trend in student achievement over the last four years flattened out between 2014 and 2105.

The percentage of students meeting “expected gains” has increased. After four years of decreases, this is a positive sign, he said. To meet expected gains or expected growth a student must earn a higher score on the spring MAP test than the average score of students in a national sample who started out the school-year in the same grade with the same MAP score.

There is a larger gap in performance based on household income, race and ethnicity. The results of the scores on the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test “highlight groups by household income. … We do see the very large gaps in college-readiness,” Mr. Godard said.

The gap in annual student academic growth between different subgroups is very small indicating that low-income and minority students are growing at nearly the same rate as white students.

Mr. Godard said that even though white students and minority students are showing similar rates of growth, the gap remains.

Board member Claudia Garrison said the achievement report states that students are making gains at the same rates but not catching up to close the achievement gap. “The gains that the lower-performing students are making are not getting them to be equal with the higher-performing students. They’re just the ‘expected gains.’ Is there any joy to be gotten from this?”

Mr. Godard said, “Making national norm gains is a place to start. When students make that gain, we know that their learning is on pace with the national average.” He also said, “Our students are progressing at the same rate, but in order to close the gap we have to accelerate [minority student growth].”

Pre-Kindergarten Experience

More black children are entering kindergarten at District 65 with preschool experience than four years ago, but fewer of them are prepared for kindergarten, District 65 data show.

The section of the “Preliminary Report on Black Student Achievement at District 65” that deals with the preschool experiences of children who enroll in kindergarten at the District shows that more than 90% of black students who enrolled in kindergarten over the past four years had some preschool experience in home day care, a day care center, full-day preschool or half-day preschool.

Most of the data came from information gathered when families enrolled their children for kindergarten, according to the report.

Citing the achievement report, Board member Jennifer Phillips said 54% of students coming into kindergarten are meeting four of the five readiness skills, such as recognizing letters and their sounds.

A report last fall indicated that 33% of black students and 23% of Hispanic students were meeting this benchmark in 2015, compared to 75% of white students. Only 26% of students from a low-income household meet four of the five readiness skills, compared to 72% of other students.

Mr. Rykhus said children who attend full-day or half-day early childhood education programs “have tended to do better” in kindergarten. He said if the data shows a gap by race as early as kindergarten, “it gives us more reason to pursue how to create opportunities for robust early childhood experiences for all of our students, in particular the ones who fall into the gap.”

To ascertain more information about the length, type and provider of preschool experiences of entering kindergartners, parents enrolling their children in kindergarten in District 65 for 2016 will be asked a more detailed set of questions, according to the preliminary report.

Decrease in Kindergarten Readiness

Even though more minority students have preschool experience before enrolling in kindergarten at District 65, data over the past four years indicates that there is a “decreasing trend” in the percent of students who met “kindergarten-readiness” standards – from 61% to 53% over the past four years, said Mr. Godard.

The achievement report provisionally defines “kindergarten readiness” as scoring above the 50th percentile on at least four of the five snapshots of the Illinois Snapshot of Early Learning (ISEL) that assesses a child’s foundational skills in literacy. The five skills are alphabet recognition, phonemic awareness, one-to-one matching, letter sounds, and story listening.

The percent of kindergarten students who mastered – that is, answered all questions correctly – two or more of the skills needed in kindergarten has dropped from about 18% to about 11% over four years. The percent of students who need intervention at the kindergarten level increased from 20% to 27%, Mr. Godard said.

Mr. Godard said these numbers present concerns, and added that a number of skills needed for kindergarten are not measured in the standardized tests, such as self-control, social-emotional learning and the ability to cooperate.

Board member Omar Brown said, “It seems like we know what kindergartners should know to be successful. Why can’t Cradle to Career come up with ‘Every 3-year-old child in Evanston should know this,’ such as their name, where they live. I know we know all the early childhood providers, and I know we have partnerships. … That’s how we start fighting this.”

Ms. Quattrocki, who is a member of the Cradle to Career literacy committee, said they are working to develop a common understanding of what kindergarten readiness looks like.

Ms. Phillips said there is a national campaign called “Too Small to Fail,” focused on early literacy, and Dr. Goren said there is a similar one to have every child reading at grade level by third grade.

Board member Suni Kartha said she wished to highlight that “this is a literacy preparedness survey” and that some qualities cannot be measured on standardized tests and children develop at different stages.

“Is there a way we can broaden the way we look at achievement? I wish there were a way we could measure all the other, softer, pre-K skills,” she said. “If [kids] have the social-emotional skills, they can at least absorb and learn. I don’t think a score on a standardized test is necessarily the only or most accurate predictor of achievement.”

Mr. Brown said he is concerned about the students who do not receive early support and intervention. A student “who doesn’t make it at third grade will not make it at fifth grade – and then will go on to the high school,” he said.

Ms. Phillips said some of the District’s 800 kindergartners may need individual education plans [IEPs] “right off the bat.”

Ms. Garrison appeared to agree with Ms. Kartha’s idea of not testing students so early because of differences in typical development in the early years.

Poverty, Race and Achievement

The District’s data showed that more low-income students and minority students are in the lower achievement deciles and quartiles, and much lower percentages are meeting college readiness benchmarks.

The data suggest, though, that the gap in achievement may not be due entirely to low-income status. The achievement report presented data showing that 39% of non-low income black students met college readiness benchmarks in reading, compared to 75% of non-low income white students, a 36- point gap.

“Even as you tease out the impact of poverty and the impact of wealth, there is a 38-point difference in math scores and a 36-point difference in reading scores,” said Ms. Chow. “I think we need to take a deeper look at that data – at students in these categories to really understand the drivers of this. What are the disparities irrespective of income?” she asked.

“We should be able to fix the disparities. There’s clearly a disparity based on race here. What do we know about a non-low-income black student versus a non-low-income white student in the classroom?” Ms. Chow asked. She said she believes the District could address “any disparities related to things kids are experiencing in the classroom.”

She suggested this could be “a topic of conversation when we come to our April meeting” on black student achievement.

“This is a great project for April,” said Ms. Quattrocki, “to look at race apart from income, at a macro level, with grades and cohorts. We need to see an analysis [at the] school level, see what students are doing differently. When we talk about what reading programs we want to support and what initiatives we want to support, we need to see it on a school level and grade level – why students are doing better, grade by grade, looking at curriculum and instruction and all the different pieces.”

Mr. Godard said that, even though it is possible to measure “an effect of income” it is not possible to measure the “depth of poverty.” He also said there is an “effect of race in our data.”

Mr. Godard said “I think there are steps we can take: What do we know about different groups of students? What kinds of services have these students received? This is more complicated that we can fully have in April but we can take some steps.”

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...