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On Sept. 25, School District 65 administrators presented a report on progress toward meeting the Board’s four goals on student achievement, measured using the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test given in the Spring of 2017.

The four goals, adopted by the Board in March 2015, are 1) to increase the percent of students meeting college readiness benchmarks (CRB) in reading and math; 2) to increase the percent of students meeting expected growth targets in reading and math; 3) to decrease the percent of students in the bottom quartile in reading and math; and 4) to eliminate achievement gaps by increasing the percent of students, by subgroup, meeting CRB in reading and math.

On the Spring 2016 MAP test, District 65 students showed good progress in several areas. On the Spring 2017 MAP test, though, the report showed there was a decline in achievement in most areas, and modest increases in a few areas. There is a continuing gap in test scores when the data is disaggregated by both household income and race/ethnicity.

I’m disappointed with the results of 2016-17 districtwide student outcomes on the MAP test,” said Superintendent Paul Goren. “The results are not what we expected due to the momentum we have been building. Nor do they recognize what we know to be true – that our students are really capable of achieving.”

 “These outcomes reflect significant challenges faced by education and social systems that are intended to give every student the opportunity to succeed,” said Peter Godard, Chief Officer of Research, Accountability and Data. “These results reflect opportunity gaps faced by marginalized groups due to institutional racism and for many families the lack of social and economic supports, and should not be used to draw conclusions about the efforts or abilities of these students or their families.”

Percent Meeting College Readiness Benchmarks

The report shows the percentage of third- through eighth-graders who are on track to college readiness, using benchmark scores in reading and math identified for the MAP test by the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA), the test’s owner. A student who scores at the benchmark is predicted to have a 50% chance of earning a B in a related subject in freshman year of college.

On a nationwide basis, approximately 36% of the students taking MAP are predicted to meet the college readiness benchmarks in reading and 38% in math.

The table below shows on a composite basis the percentage of District 65 third- through eighth-graders who were on track to college readiness in reading and math in the last five years. On the 2017 MAP test, there was a slight decline in reading and a slight increase in math.

  When the data is broken out by race/ethnicity and household income, the percentage of black, Hispanic and low-income students who met CRB declined in both reading and math. The percentage of white and multi-racial students and students with a disability who met CRB increased in both reading and math. The accompanying charts illustrates the trends for black, Hispanic, white, and low-income students.

While the report did not report data by grade level, the report says, “One important observation is that there is a large reading and math achievement/opportunity gap present when students are first assessed using MAP in 3rd grade.”

In the 2015-17 school year, 40% of the District’s students were from low-income households (measured by free- or reduced-fee lunch status). Seventy-five percent of the District’s black students were from low-income families, compared to less than 10% of white students.  

Percent Making Expected Gains

One of the Board’s goals is that students meet “expected gains” on the MAP test. Conceptually, to make expected gains, a student must grow academically during a school year as much as or more than the average student in his grade level who started out at the same level. On a nationwide basis, approximately 50% of the students meet expected gains using this approach.

In addition, though, District 65 has added an extra criterion: a student’s gain must be greater than the sum of the standard errors on both the pre- and post-test scores, which make it more difficult to make expected gains using the District’s criteria.

In 2017 there was a significant decline in the percentage of students making expected gains in both reading and math. The table below gives, on a composite basis, the percentage of District 65 third- through eighth-graders who made expected gains in reading and math in the last five years.

The report says that students who did not make expected gains were more likely to be students who were not meeting college readiness benchmarks. This is the group of students who need to accelerate their growth in order to meet CRB.

Percent in the Bottom Quartile

The percentage of students in the bottom quartile increased by three percentage points in both reading and math in 2017. The table below gives the trends.              

Key Actions to Address Achievement

 “There is an urgency to respond to and address these results in our day-to-day work in our classrooms, schools, and District offices, so our intentions are realized and performance improves for all students,” said Dr. Goren. Addressing equity and institutional racism “will continue to be our top priority. In getting to root causes, we must and will focus on racial equity.

“We can no longer afford our divisions across various lines to limit our ability to find solutions,” Dr. Goren continued. “If we want equity to be our top priority, then we must collaborate across our different interest groups to identify new ways to foster excellence and success for all children. We know from research studies that when educators work together and build trust, students’ performance will improve.”

One initiative Dr. Goren referred to relates to the nationwide study conducted by Stanford Professor Sean Reardon, which shows “there are significant gaps in performance as early as third grade, which further indicates that these gaps exist when children land in kindergarten.”

 Dr. Goren said he was convening a group of expert practitioners and community members to study the District’s early childhood program and make recommendations on how to improve it. 

He added that the District would look to early childhood providers in the community and to Evanston’s Cradle to Career partners “to consider how we must all address and improve kindergarten readiness.

“We also know our community serves a very important role to support students during out-of-school time with mentors, activities, and other opportunities. We must work on these issues together and with a commitment to not stop until we see significant improvement.”

Administrators summarized some additional key steps being taken to improve student achievement. Stacy Beardsley, Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction, said the District’s K-3 literacy work is showing promising results, particularly in kindergarten and first grade, where black students are making gains.

“This information indicates to us that the foundational work that we began this past year in K-3 is beginning to bear fruit, and we need to continue to hold that focus,” she said. “We are aware of our achievement gap at third grade. This work is foundational for us to address those concerns.”

Ms. Beardsley added that the District is targeting math at sixth grade where a lower percentage of students are making expected gains, and focusing on successfully implementing the Board’s decision to detrack Algebra in eighth grade. In addition, she said the District implemented an online Multitiered Student Supports (MTSS) tool last year to help develop and monitor intervention plans to meet the needs of striving students.

Andalib Khelghati, Assistant Superintendent of Schools, said the District is expanding teachers’ learning opportunities in equity and cultural bias, which he said will lead to a shift in mindset in how interventions and curriculum changes are designed. In addition, he said, school improvement plans are being developed in a “much more granular and specific manner with the interventions that a school needs. The school instructional teams have now much more laser-like support of District resources.”

Mr. Khelghati added that the District’s hiring practices are focused on equity and intended to increase the diversity and cultural awareness of District 65 staff.

Joyce Bartz, Assistant Superintendent of Special Services, said, “We now have all of our sites trained in terms of school climate.” She said all schools are working on improving relationships of students and staff within the schools through restorative justice and other programs. In addition, schools have developed a uniform plan to reduce students’ absenteeism.

Board Comments

Board member Candance Chow said, “I think we’re all saddened by the results, especially when we were seeing a positive trajectory [in the prior years].” She asked why there was a dip on the Spring 2017 MAP test.

Ms. Beardsley said the District’s interventions may not have been as strong last year due to the implementation of the MTSS Explorer tool, but added the new tool should strengthen the plans and interventions provided to striving students going forward.

Ms. Chow said, “I would add I’m concerned about the fatigue and then the resources that we need to deliver on those plans to support our educators. I think we need to think long and hard about how we’re resourcing that model, and how teachers are going to implement the intervention plans.”

On the positive side, Ms. Chow noted that the percentage of black students who entered District 65 kindergarten ready was 76% in 2016, compared to 61% in 2015.

Board member Sergio Hernandez said, “Kids have an access gap. … We have to find different ways to measure outcomes and access to opportunity.” As examples, he said some students have access to tutors and enrichment activities during the summer, while other do not.

Mr. Hernandez said that the District should look at ways to measure different outcomes that take into account social and emotional development of children, and how the District engages families in the education process. “Then I think we can get to a better way to measure whether children are succeeding or not succeeding in the School District.”

Board member Anya Tanyavutti said assessment tools “were established as tools of stratification” and “they have a heavy cultural lens layered on top of how we analyze intelligence.” She said the Board should push to have broader measures of student success, which the District could convey to students in a formal way.

Ms. Tanyavutti gave an example of cultural bias. “I had first-graders I was teaching in an urban setting and they were asked to find the picture of a bridle. Well, most of them had never been to a horse farm. So while they had the ability to distinguish the differences in pictures, it was just something they had no cultural access to.”

The MAP tests are given to District 65 third- through eighth-graders. NWEA says each question on its test must go through a “rigorous calibration process and pass content-integrity, sound-construction, and cognitive-rigor criteria.” Each question must, among other things, “Eliminate barriers and be accessible to all students – regardless of socioeconomic status, race or ethnicity, special needs, English language development levels, and more.

“Students of similar latent abilities who take our tests have the same chance to show what they understand, know, and are ready to learn. We carefully screen our test items for bias based on gender, culture, geographic location, linguistic heritage, physical capabilities, and more.”

Dr. Goren said, “As we think about broader measures, it’s not an either/or. We all know that we have to teach young children how to read so they can read to learn.

“Even with critiques of standardized tests, the MAP scores give us some dipstick into where our children are in literacy, and reading, and mathematical literacy that can help drive that agenda while we explore the other data.

“I think it’s a really important tension. We can be absolutely critical of the biases of standardized tests, but if we know that at a second-, third-, or fourth-grade level that a young person is really struggling in reading, we have to do something about that.”

Ms. Tanyavutti said she agreed. She added that she was not proposing shifting away from MAP, but adding additional and broader measures of success.

In a separate interview with the RoundTable, Dr. Goren said, “I’m always interested in multiple measures and thinking about different ways that we can assess student progress, student growth, and how young people are learning. That said, we still need, as a District, norm referenced standardized tests that provide us with some sense of how kids are doing vis-a-vis national norms. So that we know where we are, know where we’re going, know what we have to address, and know where we have to focus, double or triple down to make a difference for kids, especially in their fundamental skills in reading and literacy and mathematics and mathematical literacy.

“I want to make sure that as we think about multiple measures that we still maintain a test that is normed nationally, that gives us a sense of where our kids are and where we have to address our instructional focus, our resources to make a difference.”

Board member Rebeca Mendoza said she thought the District could do a better job helping parents understand the test information. It would be helpful to explain what the scores mean and what parents can do to help support their kids, she said.

In the debates leading up to revamping the No Child Left Behind Act in 2015, there was a significant debate about whether to require standardized tests as part of the new law.

In January 2015, Senator Patty Murray (D. Wash.) said standardized testing was a civil rights issue. “We know that if we don’t have ways to measure students’ progress, and if we don’t hold our states accountable, the victims will invariably be the kids from poor neighborhoods, children of color, and students with disabilities.”

On Jan. 30, 2015, 27 major civil rights organizations and education advocates, including the NAACP and the National Urban League, urged Congress to require as part of the new law: “Annual, statewide assessments for all students (in grades 3-8 and at least once in high school) that are aligned with, and measure each student’s progress toward meeting, the state’s college and career-ready standards.”

On May 5, 2015, 12 civil rights organizations, including the NAACP and the National Urban League, announced their opposition to a movement urging that parents be allowed to “opt out” of taking tests. In a joint statement, the civil rights organizations said, “Our commitment to fair, unbiased, and accurate data collection and reporting resonates greatest in our work to improve education. The educational outcomes for the children we represent are unacceptable by almost every measurement. And we rely on the consistent, accurate, and reliable data provided by annual statewide assessments to advocate for better lives and outcomes for our children. These data are critical for understanding whether and where there is equal opportunity.”

Eliminating the assessments, they said, would allow schools to “sweep disparities under the rug.”

Other civil rights groups, however, opposed standardized tests, arguing they were culturally biased, students were over-tested, and teachers spent too much classroom time teaching to the test.

On Dec. 10, 2015, President Barack Obama signed into law the “Every Child Succeeds Act,” which revamped the No Child Left Behind Act. The new law requires that States administer standardized tests in reading and math annually in grades 3-8, and at least once in high school. Science tests must also be administered.

 Assessing Critical Thinking

 “Taking Stock,” a report prepared by Paul Zavitkosky and colleagues at the Center for Urban Education Leadership at the University of Illinois at Chicago, says standardized tests are designed to measure “general knowledge” – or higher order thinking and depth of knowledge – more than specific skills and content knowledge.

Standardized tests “most important job is to estimate the depth and breadth of students’ academic strengths, and to identify where that estimate fits on a standardized continuum of academic capacities. Numerical scales are the yardsticks used to represent that continuum. Scale scores are the ‘units of knowledge’ that make up that yardstick.

“Higher scale scores have at least as much to do with depth and breadth of student thinking as they do with the volume of discrete skills and concepts that students have mastered. For the most part, students who are able to size up and work through items and passages that reflect higher levels of depth and complexity earn higher scale scores than students who get stumped by those items.
“Contrary to stereotype, inferential reasoning and conceptual understanding are central requirements for achieving higher scale scores on virtually all standardized tests.”