At a special meeting of the District 65 School Board on April 25, Peter Godard, Director of Research, Accountability and Data, presented a Report of Black Student Achievement in District 65.

“Mirroring state and national trends, academic outcomes for black students in District 65 fall substantially short of outcomes for students with other racial/ethnic identities,” says the Report. “This trend in performance is long standing, and the social, economic, and educational factors that influence the persistence of this trend are complex.”

Board President Tracy Quattrocki opened the discussion saying that when she came on the Board seven years ago, the District was assessing  student achievement by measuring the percentage of students who “met standards” on the Illinois Standard Achievement Test. It appeared the achievement gap was closing because more than 80% of black students were “meeting standards” on the ISATs.

The Board came to realize, though, that many students who were meeting standards lacked critical skills that they needed to succeed at Evanston Township High School, she said.

Reports prepared by Paul Zavitkovsky of the University of Illinois at Chicago demonstrated that the benchmarks to “meet standards” on the ISATs were set a level where students who were two full grades behind grade-level work could still meet standards. The benchmarks were significantly lower than the level of achievement needed to be on track to college readiness. 

As a result, the Board significantly raised the expectations for students, and adopted a goal that students be on track to college readiness. This raised the bar from “meeting standards” on the ISAT, which corresponded to scoring at the 20th percentile, to being on track to college readiness, which corresponded to scoring at the 60th percentile in reading and the 68th percentile in math. Raising the bar meant that fewer students would meet the bar.

“We did redefine our expectations because we do believe that every student can and should be able to succeed, and high expectations are at the heart of equity,” said Ms. Quattrocki.

While there is on average a significant gap in achievement using various measures, many black students are high achievers in the District. 

The Gap Exists at Kindergarten

“Research points to early literacy and early childhood education having a profound role in the academic development of a child,” says the Report. Mr. Godard said 34% of black students entering kindergarten in 2015 were “kindergarten ready,” compared to 64% of white students.

Kindergarten ready is provisionally defined by the District as scoring above the 50th percentile on at least four of the five snapshots of the Illinois Snapshot of Early Learning (ISEL) that assess a child’s foundational skills in literacy.

The Report breaks down the data by both race and income. The table below shows that students from higher-income households were better prepared than students from lower-income households, but it also shows that a gap exists between white and black students at each income level.

               % Students Entering D65 Kindergarten Ready

                                    Black    White

              Lower Income     29          49

              Higher Income     57          65

Mr. Godard said that 96% of black students have pre-K experience, but that 24% of black students have day-care experience rather than preschool experience.  Another major difference is that 68% of white students attend a private preschool, while 51% of black students attend District 65’s early childhood programs. 

Scores by Quintiles

Mr. Godard presented a chart showing the percentage of black and white District 65 students scoring in each “quintile” (i.e., the percent scoring between the 1st and 19th percentile, the percent scoring between the 20th and 39th percentiles, etc.). On a national basis, 20% of the students fall into each quintile.

In the accompanying chart, the percentage of black students in the middle three quintiles, is very close to the national average which is shown by the green line. However, 25% of black students score in the bottom quintile, compared to the national average of 20%; and 9% score in the top quintile.

Significantly, the chart is comparing District 65’s black students, 80% of whom come from low-income households, with all students in the nation who took the MAP test.

The chart also shows that 58% of white students scored in the top quintile, compared to the national average of 20%. The wide gap in achievement at District 65 is attributable in large part to the high performance of white students.

The chart shows how the gap in student achievement differs depending on the benchmark used. If the benchmark is set at the 20th percentile (as the “meet standards” boundary of the ISATs), the students in quintiles 2, 3, 4, and 5 would “meet standards.” If the benchmark is raised to college readiness, or about the 60th percentile for reading, students in quintiles 4 and 5, meet the benchmark.

 College Readiness

The table below provides the percentage of District 65 fifth- through eighth-graders who met college readiness benchmarks on the Spring 2015 MAP test. The college readiness benchmarks were identified by the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA), the owner of the MAP test, in a 2015 study. The study identified benchmark scores on the MAP that align with the ACT’s college readiness benchmarks.  For comparison purposes, the RoundTable includes columns that show the percentage of seniors at ETHS who met ACT’s college readiness. 

     % Students on Track to College Readiness

                       District 65          District 202

                       Black   White      Black  White

      Reading     29         84             20       86

     Math          23         80             36       86

The college readiness benchmarks for the MAP test correspond to the 63rd percentile in reading and the 68th percentile in math, meaning that the study predicts that 37% of students nationwide will meet the benchmarks in reading and 32% in math.

As with kindergarten readiness, there is also a gap when the data is disaggregated by race and income. For example, a much higher percentage of higher-income white students met college ready benchmarks than higher-income black students.

Student Growth

The District measures the growth of each student between kindergarten and third grade using the Developmental Reading Assessment. The Report concludes, “In the first four years in District 65, both black and white students demonstrate substantial growth in reading comprehension skills. Despite this progress, the gap in reading achievement between Black and White students is similarly sized at the end of Grade 3 as at the end of kindergarten.”

For grades three to eight, the District measures whether each student is growing academically from one school year to the next using “expected gains” determined by NWEA for the MAP test. The Report concludes that the percentage of Black students making expected gains each year is about the same as White students. While black students are making gains, they are not growing at a faster pace than white students, which would be necessary to close the gap.

Income Status as a Factor

In District 65, 2,731 students, or 37% of the student body, are classified as low income, meaning they have an income less than 180% of the federal poverty rate. Almost 80% of Black students come from low-income households, compared to less than 10% of White students.

The data show that higher-income students at District 65 perform significantly better on standardized tests than low-income students. Because 90% of White students come from higher-income households and 80% of Black students come from low-income households, people have theorized that the gap is due to income status. 

But the data also show that higher percentages of higher-income White students are kindergarten ready and on track to college readiness than higher-income Black students. Also the data show that higher percentages of lower-income White students are kindergarten ready and on track to college readiness than lower-income Black students. These gaps exist when students enter kindergarten and they continue through eighth grade.

While the District has data showing the percent of Black and White students who are from low-income and higher-income  households (i.e.,  above and below 180% of the federal poverty rate), the Report notes that there are no data showing the degree of poverty of Black households compared to White households who are classified as low-income. In addition, there are no data showing the degree of wealth of Black households compared to White households who are classified as higher income (e.g., what is the median income of Black households who have an income higher than 180% of the federal poverty rate, compared to the median income of White households in that group).

Absent further information about the relative income levels of White and Black households, the Report says, “The methodology used here does not allow us to definitively state whether race/ethnicity has an effect on student outcomes separate from income.” The Report goes on the state, “However, the data summarized in this report does suggest that race has an effect on student outcomes in District 65 separate from income.”

The Report does not take into account many other variables that researchers say impact student achievement. In a phone interview, Mr. Godard told the RoundTable that one would like to understand the other factors, but the District did not have the resources to conduct an analysis that “would withstand academic scrutiny.”

Mr. Godard said, the data shows that the achievement gap “cannot be explained solely by income,” and while the reasons why individual students do better academically than others are pretty complex and include factors besides race and income, the administration did not want to shy away from the data which he said suggests race has an effect on student outcomes.

Larry Gavin was a co-founder of the Evanston RoundTable in 1998 and assisted in its conversion to a non-profit in 2021. He has received many journalism awards for his articles on education, housing and...