At the School Board’s March 4 meeting, Elizabeth Cardenas-Lopez, Director of Literacy at District 65, gave an update on the District’s K-3 Literacy Program. The District has been focusing on enhancing literacy skills in kindergarten through third grades as one key way to address achievement gaps in the District.

“We establish a culture of continuous improvement,” said Dr. Cardenas-Lopez. “We have high expectations for learning. We have high expectations for quality teaching. We provide culturally responsive teaching and have a growth mind set.”

She said the District uses a balanced approach to literacy, and that three workshops are central components of this approach, using the Lucy Calkins model. This allows “for deeper student learning and accelerating the learning for students who need additional supports,” Dr. Cardenas-Lopez said. The workshops are:

• A language workshop helps students develop print concepts, phonemic awareness, phonics and word recognition, fluency, and more expansive vocabularies.

• In the reading workshop, students read a range of texts with different levels of complexity, develop key ideas and details, and integrate their knowledge and ideas.

• In the writing workshop, students develop a range of writing skills, and do research to build and present their knowledge, Stacy Beardsley, Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction, said that Lucy Calkins’ reading workshop curriculum is a “rich” curriculum that is not the easiest for teachers to pick up. She said a second-grade teacher who used the curriculum last year told her she was having “outstanding results,” and “I love this. It works. I now understand how it all comes together.”

Dr. Cardenas-Lopez said as part of the literacy program, the District provides coaching supports, reading supports, reading specialists, and professional learning at the District level; and the District has also established professional learning communities. 

Dr. Beardsley added, “We have a couple of strong community partners in this work,” mentioning Foundation 65, which provides for coaching and a home-based summer reading program, and McGaw YMCA, which serves about 200 students in a summer learning program.

Dr. Cardenas-Lopez said the District is developing a partnership with parents in a Kindergarten Literacy Project, and added that reading specialists in the schools are intervening “more consistently” and “earlier in the year.” She added, though, “More than anything else, I think it’s the core instruction” that is making a difference.

Winter Test Data

The District’s achievement report published on Jan. 28, showed that only 28% of Black students who entered kindergarten this school year were kindergarten ready, down from 48% three years ago; and only 35% of Latinx students who entered kindergarten this school year were kindergarten ready, down from 43% three years ago. 

The District defines “kindergarten ready” as scoring above the 50th percentile in at least four of the five areas assessed on the Illinois Snapshot of Early Learning (ISEL): alphabet recognition, phonemic awareness, one-to-one matching, letter sounds, and storytelling.

Despite those drops in kindergarten readiness, Dr. Cardenas-Lopez reported that both Black and Latinx kindergarteners did well on the Developmental Reading Assessment (DRA) given this winter:

• 77% of Black kindergartners met the DRA benchmarks, which was 11 percentage points higher than the average of the prior five years, and 

 • 70% of Latinx kindergartners met the DRA benchmarks, which was 11 percentage points higher than the average of the prior five years.

On an overall basis, students’ results on the Winter DRA were mixed. The results for kindergartners and third-graders were higher than the average of the prior five years. First- and second-graders results, however, were slightly lower than the average of the prior five years.

Dr. Cardenas-Lopez said, “There is some progress, but we know that more needs to be done.”

She said some new things the District is doing is piloting a new phonics curriculum in some schools, which will be available in English and Spanish; establishing more intentional partnerships with the pre-kindergarten teams, special education supervisors and teachers, bilingual teams and schools with higher needs; and piloting a new, more rigorous literacy assessment (called STEP), available in English and Spanish.

Board member Sergio Hernandez said, “What’s promising for me is we’re seeing that kindergarten is ready, so if children are arriving – so-called not kindergarten ready – we have strategies and we have approaches, we have a curriculum that is effectively going to meet their needs and get them to where they need to be.”

Board President Suni Kartha noted that the District was phasing out the DRA test because, as she understood it, it is not aligned to the common core State standards. She asked how students were doing on the new STEP assessment. Dr. Beardsley responded that the STEP assessment, which the District is piloting, is more rigorous and better aligned with the common core and that students were showing good growth on STEP.

The proficiency level to meet benchmarks on the DRA test appears to be lower than the proficiency level the District is using to measure kindergarten readiness, and lower than the proficiency level the District is using to measure whether students are on track to college readiness on the Measures of Academic Progress test.

For example, on the 2018 DRA test, 78% of the District’s eighth-graders met DRA’s benchmarks for literacy. By contrast, on the 2018 MAP test, only 57% of third graders met college readiness benchmarks in reading.

Ms. Kartha also noted that the baseline data used in reporting DRA results for the District’s schools were lower for some schools than others, and she asked if using lower baseline data for some schools was setting lower expectations for those schools.

Dr. Beardsley said the baseline data for the schools were the five-year averages for the schools. She added that the District was providing additional resources to the schools that had lower baseline averages, and that the schools that had lower baselines had higher growth targets than other schools.

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...