On Sept. 24, School District 65 administrators presented a report on the 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 2018.

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.

The Board also set targets of success for each of the goals to be achieved in five years, with the baseline year being 2015.

Paul Goren, Superintendent of District 65, emphasized at the start that the report was a “snapshot” of student achievement and that a more comprehensive report on student achievement would be presented in January. Nonetheless, he said, “There is important progress to highlight,” when the 2018 MAP results are compared with the 2017 MAP results. He said on an overall basis: 

• The percentage of students who made expected gains in reading increased by 1.2 percentage points, and the percent who made expected gains in math increased by 6 points;

• The percent of students who were below the 25th percentile declined by 1.4 percentage points in reading and by 2.4 points in math; and

• The percentage of students meeting college readiness benchmarks increased for two out of five subgroups for reading and for three out of five subgroups in math.  The five subgroups are Black, Hispanic, White, low-income and students with a disability (an Individual Education Plan).

On an overall basis the percentage of students meeting college readiness benchmarks declined slightly in 2018, compared to 2017.

In addition, there is a continuing gap in test scores when the data is disaggregated by both household income and race/ethnicity.

Despite some positive data for 2018, Dr. Goren said, “We still have much more work to do, and we have to work even more urgently, as our trends over time won’t be met unless we accelerate progress to meet our five-year goals as we’ve stated in the strategic plan.”

Peter Godard, Chief Officer of Accountability, Equity & Organizational Development, gave a more detailed presentation of the 2018 MAP data and the trends since 2015, which on the whole show little progress since 2015.

Mr. Godard opened his presentation with some cautionary remarks: “When aggregate data shows that members of a particular student demographic group score below benchmarks, these outcomes reflect opportunity gaps faced by marginalized groups due to institutional racism in the education system. These results should not be used to draw conclusions about the efforts or abilities of these students or of their families.”

Mr. Godard also emphasized that the MAP test only measures reading and math skills, and said, “That’s not the full extent of what students know and are able to do.” He added that even though the MAP test has been statistically tested against having bias, it doesn’t mean that whiteness that pervades so much of our society is absent from the assessment.”

While the Board’s goals use 2015 as the benchmark year, the RoundTable is including data for 2013 and 2014 as additional data points.

 % 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, 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 an aggregate basis the percentage of District 65 third- through eighth-graders who were on track to college readiness in reading and math in the last six years. On the 2018 MAP test, reading scores were flat in reading and there was a slight increase in math, compared to the 2017 MAP results.

Both the four-year and the six-year trends shows a slight decline in both reading and math.

When the data is broken out by race/ethnicity, “There is a huge disparity in outcomes between White students and students of color,” said Mr. Godard. The results for Black, Hispanic, White and Low-Income students are illustrated in the accompanying charts.

In reading, the percentage of black students who met CRB increased by 1 percentage point in 2018 over 2017, “but really the trend for Black students has been up and down since the strategic plan has been adopted,” said Mr. Godard. Hispanic students were 3.5 percentage points lower in 2018 than 2015. White students are two points lower.

In math, the percentage of Black students meeting CRB has “shown a steady downward trend since the strategic plan was adopted,” said Mr. Godard. For Hispanic students there has been a “slight but steady upward trend.” White students have shown an “up and down pattern.”

The percentage of students from low-income households who met CRB has declined in both reading and math since 2015. In the 2017-18 school year, 76% of the District’s Black students were from low-income households (measured by free- or reduced-fee lunch status). Of those, 92% qualified for free-lunch, which is a higher degree of poverty than those who qualify for reduced-fee lunch. Less than 10% of the District’s white students qualified for free- or reduced-fee lunch.  

Percent Making Expected Gains

One of the Board’s goals is that students make “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 reporting the results on meeting expected gains, Mr. Godard said, “What we see is for both subjects, an increase [in 2018] as compared to last year [2017], and for math, a pretty substantial increase of close to 5% from the time the strategic plan was adopted.

“The real highlight here is what’s happening in the math classroom,” he said. He added that the 5 Essential Survey data also shows “math instruction is one of the real high points of what’s happening in District 65.”

The table below gives, on an aggregate basis, the percentage of District 65 third- through eighth-graders who made expected gains in reading and math in the last six years.

The report also reflects that students who did not meet CRB in reading and math showed the biggest increases in making expected gains last year. For students who did not meet CRB in reading, the percentage who made expected gains in 2018 was 31.2%, compared to 23.1% in 2017. For students who did not meet CRB in math, 41.1% met expected gains in math in 2018, compared to 26.4% in 2017. This is the group of students who need to accelerate their growth in order to meet CRB.

Percent in the Bottom Quartile

On the 2018 MAP test, the percentage of students in the bottom quartile decreased by 1.4 percentage points in reading and by 2.4 percentage points in math, compared to the 2017 results. The table below gives the trends.

Key Actions to Address Achievement

“The trends are a clarion call for urgency,” said Dr. Goren. “We do see those signals of some improvement in 2017-2018 over 2016-2017, but the trends over time signal to us the importance of continuing to work with urgency.”

Dr. Goren summarized things the District is doing to improve student achievement. They include:

• Implementing culturally relevant practices and really engaging children and staff on how to reach kids in the learning process;

• Diving deeper into multi-tiered processes and using a data-driven process that identifies where kids are struggling so teachers can provide the necessary instruction and interventions;

• Using “courageous conversations” and equity learning to “really interrogate our practices” and examine “what are we doing and how can we change them;

• School work plans are focused on student achievement but really focus on Black and Latinx student achievement; and

• Continuing a focus on school climate, restorative practices and developing relationships.

“The real highlight here is what’s happening in the math classroom.”

 Board member Joey Hailpern suggested that LaTarsha Green, the District’s new Executive Director of Black Student Success, and Joaquin Stephenson, the District’s new Director of Equity and Family/Community Engagement, be asked to review the Board’s goals. It is a great opportunity to have them look at everything and see “if we’re on the right path with new eyes at the table,” he said.

He also said he would still like to see what they thought were realistic and attainable outcomes, noting they might not be statistical, but might be behavioral or organizational, which might “be precursors to the statistical change.”

“When you look at it year to year it’s not so drastic,” Mr. Hailpern said. “But over four years it’s the wrong direction.”

Dr. Green said she is looking at what might be either supporting or hindering good quality instruction in the classroom, as well as helping build leaders’ capacity to inform teacher practices.

One thing she said she was focusing on was helping teachers and staff learn about “who our students are as learners and what challenges they might particularly have,” helping them “understand a little more about the lived experiences of students” and helping school leaders use an equity lens to make a “root cause analysis.”

Board Vice-President Anya Tanyavutti said the Board has been looking for a measurement of “social and emotional learning” and what are the skill sets that are not being measured. She asked, “What are we looking for in children’s development in our institutions beyond subject matter knowledge? I think that that’s the important metric that we’re missing. … We need to think about this as a Board.”

Ms. Tanyavutti added, “I definitely would agree that it’s disappointing to see these trends,” but said it raises a question about racial bias in the tests. She asked staff why they thought there were downward trends, and what contributed to the positive outcomes.

Stacey Beardsley, Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction, said, “The fact that we saw a rebound in expected gains is an important step. One of the things we talk about quite frequently with the instructional department is In order for us to make progress in what is a far too large achievement and opportunity gap in the District, we need to sustain steady increases in making expected gains for students of color over a sustained period of time.”

Dr. Beardsley summarized some key steps the District has been taking over the last few years in math and literacy instruction, including the heavy focus on literacy in the K-3 grade levels and moving into pre-K.

One thing that both Dr. Goren and Dr. Beardsley discussed was linking all of the District’s work under an umbrella of culturally relevant practices, which ties together curriculum and instruction, the importance of culture, school climate, the idea of restorative justice, and information processing. The framework that the District decided to use to guide this work requires that the curriculum be rigorous and provide “strong cognitive work,” said Dr. Beardsley.

Board member Candance Chow said, “We’d all rather be hearing different information, yet there’s some positive things happening.” One key question, she said is: “What does this say about the work that’s being done?

“As we look at the investment in early literacy, do we see any patterns there among third-graders, third-and fourth-graders, that are different than the aggregate scores. Are we seeing any uptick there?”

Ms. Chow added, “We should lift up some specific grades or schools where we’re seeing a lot of light shining. We should lift up where there’s traction and where we might be replicating things.

“We are seeing some gains in growth and that’s the gateway. We have to sustain that. That’s the linchpin of that. We need to see much higher than average growth for our marginalized students.”

Board member Rebeca Mendoza said, “This is not a measure of where our kids are.” She said the goals were selected five years ago, and “I would hope that the measure of our kids is more than their reading and math scores. How do we capture personal growth? … We have to think of better ways to measure growth, and better ways to encourage our educators.”

Referring to college readiness, Ms. Mendoza said, “We’re preparing our kids for an educational system that’s changing, for innovation that’s changing, we have institutions that no longer require ACT scores. How are we getting our kids and their portfolio ready when colleges aren’t going to ask for ACT scores? How do we value the whole person?

“I hope we can put a value on our kids other than just these two scores.”

Dr. Goren responded, “I think it’s a yes, and. I appreciate the perspective of personal growth. I appreciate the perspective of a different lens to growth to really honor the assets that kids bring with them.

“The trends are a clarion call for urgency,” said Dr. Goren. “We do see those signals of some improvement in 2017-2018 over 2016-2017, but the trends over time signal to us the importance of continuing to work with urgency.”

“The yes and, though, is that we also want to set our children and young adults up for success so that they’re on a pathway to success when they land in the high school and whatever they end up doing as they go beyond high school. It’s a combination of both. And I want to make sure we stay the course and accelerate the learning that has to occur for kids to be successful in their different grade levels and as they land in high school and as they land in college, to work, to other opportunities. So, it’s a combination of both that’s really important.”

Board President Suni Kartha said, “We really need to continue with the work we started last year around the early childhood task force and look even earlier into the early childhood experiences that our students are bringing with them. Before the kids even come to us in the District, we need to be working with our community partners to be sure our kids have the assets in our community that are necessary for appropriate brain development. So that hopefully when kids are coming to us we can see smaller gaps in the first place.

We need to work with community partners on ways to support our families and look at what’s happening prenatally, but certainly when kids are born, how do we support access to health care, and how do we support child care and all the things children need to be healthy and successful once they come to school?”

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 classroom time teaching to the test.

On Dec. 10, 2015, President 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.”

Larry Gavin

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...