At their Jan. 13 meeting, District 65 School Board members discussed the District’s 2019 Accountability and Achievement Report, which was presented to the Board that evening. One section of the report – a qualitative section – celebrated accomplishments of students, educators and principals and contributions by the community. The RoundTable reported on that section of the report in a prior article, available here.

A quantitative section of the report provided students’ results on standardized tests. Kylie Klein, Director of Research, Accountability and Data, said, “Overall across multiple data, we see a similar picture as last year, which as we know is a call to action. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done in terms of improving and addressing the opportunity gaps.”

Ms. Klein said that opportunity gaps continue to be an area of focus, including gaps between black and Latinx students and white students; low-income and high-income students; and for students with IEPs.  The gaps are widest when comparing the percentage of students who are on track to college readiness, she said.

Anya Tanyavutti, now in her third term as Vice President of the Board, said, “I truly believe it’s our responsibility as a community to ensure that disparities in outcomes and experiences in our schools that are predictable by race and the messages of 400 years of institutional oppression and dehumanization by design, are no more.”

“I’m eager to discuss the achievement and accountability report as well as hear the plans for how we as a District will respond with urgency and deliberateness and how we will deploy resources and invest our time and energy.”

Board member Rebecca Mendoza said, “I look at this as a measure of our community’s health. And as you look at it as a measure of our community’s health, there’s some things we can celebrate, but there’s also a lot of things that we need to pay attention to.

“Rather than jump immediately to pointing fingers at the immediate culprit that is the school district for the responsibility for our children, just remember that we as a community play an incredible role in the education of all of our children.

“As we review the data, just think what role do we each play in the health of our community, especially the health of our children.”

In a study published in September, Sean Reardon, Ph.D., Professor of Poverty and Inequality in Education at Stanford University, and his co-authors say, “We examine racial test score gaps because they reflect racial differences in access to educational opportunities. By ‘educational opportunities,’ we mean all experiences in a child’s life, from birth onward, that provide opportunities for her to learn, including experiences in children’s homes, child care settings, neighborhoods, peer groups, and their schools.

“This implies that test score gaps may result from unequal opportunities either in or out of school; they are not necessarily the result of differences in school quality, resources, or experiences. Moreover, in saying that test score gaps reflect differences in opportunities, we also mean that they are not the result of innate group differences in cognitive skills or other genetic endowments. While differences in two individual children’s academic performance may reflect both individual differences and differences in educational opportunities, differences in average scores should be understood as reflecting opportunity gaps, given that there are not between-group average differences in genetic endowments or innate academic ability.”

In that spirit, the scores reported here measure how well School District 65 and the Evanston community, as a whole, are providing equitable opportunities to the children in Evanston.

Kindergarten Readiness

“Kindergarten readiness rates continue to be an area for focus,” said Ms. Klein. “We have an ongoing decline in that area.”

She said administrators planned to conduct a more in depth analysis of this issue and bring it to the Board at a subsequent Board meeting and also share the analysis with members of Evanston Cradle to Career (EC2C).

“It’s something we’ve already been planning for and discussing internally.”

The District uses the Illinois Snapshot of Early Literacy (ISEL) to measure kindergarten readiness. ISEL provides an estimate of kindergarten readiness in five areas of skill: alphabet recognition, phonemic awareness, one-to-one matching, letter sounds, and story listening. Under the District’s approach, a student is considered “kindergarten ready” when they score at or above the 50th percentile on four of the five skills assessed.

An appendix to the report shows that the percentage of students who are kindergarten ready has dropped by 17 percentage points in the last two years. The table below shows the downward trajectory.

EC2C, a partnership of more than 30 institutions and organizations in Evanston, has adopted as one of its key goals that the percentage of students who are kindergarten ready when they enter District 65 will be substantially increased.

Dianne Lequar, a co-chair of EC2C’s Learning on Track Team, told Board members, “The declines in [kindergarten readiness] scores is disheartening because these early learning skills are fundamental for K-3 learning and beyond.”

She identified many members of EC2C and many organizations in Evanston that are working in the pre-K area, including in partnership with District 65, and said, “I encourage you [the Board] to share the learnings for that analysis widely with your Cradle to Career partners, with the Early Childhood Council, with the 60 sponsors of Lifting Up Early Childhood here in Evanston.”

 Board member Candance Chow said she would like to see the data for kindergarten readiness disaggregated by race.

She added, “I think Cradle to Career needs to change to ‘Womb to Words’ because we have to have a clear mandate of the work being done. We are not seeing traction. Again this [the kindergarten readiness measure] is not the perfect measure, but to see that continuing decline, it’s alarming.”

Ms. Tanyavutti asked for more information about the District’s 0-3 program. She added, “I think pre-school is incredibly important, but that 0-3 period cannot be minimized. It’s a really powerful time in children’s lives. It absolutely contributes to long-term readiness and access to opportunities.”

DRA – K-3 Literacy

The District has been placing a major focus on increasing the literacy skills of students at the kindergarten through third-grade levels. The District administers the Developmental Reading Assessment (DRA) to assess progress at these levels. 

The report reflects that in 2019, 76% of kindergartners met DRA’s benchmarks in literacy, and that 83% of first graders, 84% of second graders, and 83% of third graders met DRA’s benchmarks. Ms. Klein said these percentages are a three-year high.

Ms. Klein said students are coming in less prepared at kindergarten, and to see the percentages of students meeting DRA benchmarks at first through third grades is “laudable.”

While the percentages of students who meet DRA’s benchmarks in literacy are high, it appears that the benchmarks for DRA are not aligned with the benchmarks to be on track to college readiness. For example, on the 2018 DRA, 80% of the District’s third-graders met DRA’s benchmarks for literacy. By contrast on the 2018 MAP test, only 57% of third-graders met the college readiness benchmarks in literacy.

On the 2019 DRA, 83% of the District’s third graders met DRA’s benchmarks for literacy. By contrast, on the 2019 Illinois Assessment for Readiness, only 49% of the District’s third graders met the college readiness benchmark in literacy.

On Track to College Readiness

One goal adopted by the School Board is to increase the percentage of students who are on track to college readiness on the MAP test, using benchmark scores identified by the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA), the owner of the MAP test. 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, across fifth- through eighth-grades, approximately 36% of the students are predicted to meet the college readiness benchmarks in reading and 38% in math.

On an overall basis, the percentage of District 65’s students meeting the college readiness benchmarks on the MAP test has been flat for the last three years. The table below shows the results for English Language Arts (ELA) and math.

The charts below break down the data by race and income. The first chart shows, on an overall basis, the percentage of black, Latinx, white, and low-income third- through eighth-graders at District 65 who are on track to college readiness in ELA on the Spring MAP tests for the years 2017, 2018 and 2019. The second chart shows the results for second- through eighth-graders in math.

While there have been slight increases or decreases for each subgroup during the three year period, the disparities in the outcomes between racial groups are significant.

Making Expected Gains

One of the School Board’s goals is that students will make “expected gains” set by the NWEA for 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 their grade who started out at the same achievement level. Statistically, on a nationwide basis, one would expect that 50% of the students will meet expected gains using this approach.

The table below shows the percentage of District 65 students who made expected gains on the MAP test in English Language Arts (ELA) and math for the last three years.

The charts below break out the data by subgroups. They show the percentage of District 65 black, Latinx, white and low-income students who made expected gains in ELA and math in the last three years.

The data show that higher percentages of black, Latinx and low-income students made expected gains in 2019 than in 2017 in ELA. White students were about the same.

In math, there was an increase in the percentage of black, Latinx and low-income students who made expected gains between 2017 and 2019, but a decline between 2018 and 2019. Lower percentages of white students made expected gains in 2019 than in the prior two years.

While many students are making expected gains each year, making the expected gains does not mean that students are making the gains they need to be on track to college readiness by the end of eighth grade.

A recent analysis conducted by the RoundTable and Paul Zavitkovsky, Assessment Specialist at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Center for Urban Education Leadership, shows that for many sixth-graders, if they just meet NWEA’s expected gains in sixth, seventh and eighth grades, they will fall further behind in terms of meeting NWEA’s college readiness benchmarks by the end of eighth grade.

Mr. Zavitkovsky concluded, “For any student achieving at less than 1.0 to 1.5 years above grade level in the spring of fifth grade, limiting expectations to NWEA growth targets reinforces the status quo and perpetuates opportunity gaps that currently exist at District 65.” The analysis is available here.

Ms. Klein acknowledged, “This growth measure isn’t aligned to a particular threshold or benchmark.”

She added “It’s not sufficient to just have student growth be a measure because attainment matters as well, especially for things like college access and access to academic success in the high school programs and as content gets more rigorous you want to make sure students have attainment and also experience growth. … You look at both measures together to see what your picture looks like.”

The data is clear, though, that the growth targets being used by District 65 are not designed to get students to be on track to college readiness by the end of eighth grade. They set targets for average growth, not accelerated growth.

Thus, while many students are meeting expected gains, the needle is not moving in terms of students meeting college readiness benchmarks. From that perspective, the growth targets currently being used reinforce the status quo.

Board Members Ask What’s Working and What’s Not

Board member Candance Chow said, for her, the primary purpose of the achievement report is to enable her to fulfill her responsibility as a Board member to monitor performance. “In that view, I think it falls short, specifically in terms of the five outcome goals of our strategic plan which we’re finishing up.”

She said the report did not provide data showing the percentage of students falling below the 25th percentile, and that it did not report separately how lower-performing students and higher performing students were doing in terms of meeting expected gains.

In response, Ms. Klein presented data showing the percentage of students scoring in the bottom quartile, but the data was not broken out by race/ethnicity.

Ms. Chow added that she would like to see a narrative included in the report that discussed where students were making gains or losing ground at particular schools and that explained why that happened.

As an example, she said the percentage of black students meeting expected gains increased from 28% to 60% at Kingsley. “I would love a narrative around what’s happening there. How are kids feeling engaged differently?”

At Chute, she said, the percentage of black students making expected gains increased by 20 to 25 points in both ELA and math. “What is happening in those classrooms? To me that would be a really great narrative to show up all the pieces of our work. It would be a case study to help us think about, as a Board, how do we replicate, redistribute resources, so we can replicate that kind of success in all our locations.”

“On the other side of the same coin, when you look at the middle school level of math performance, that has gone down considerably in two of our three schools – Nichols and Haven, our two largest schools,” said Ms. Chow. “I can pontificate on what that might be – overcrowding or larger class size. There’s also been change in curriculum. There’s also a change in pace and sequencing in math.

“Those drops concern me. A narrative there can spotlight these are places where we are addressing it.”

In a similar vein, Board member Elisabeth Lindsay-Ryan asked, “How do we plan for what we’re going to keep, what we’re going to cut, what needs massive investment that doesn’t have it.” She said the Board needs to understand the impact of various programs and the impact of changes in the District’s discipline policy and its provision of social and emotional learning.

Board President Suni Kartha said, “If we continue to see declines, we’re not going to reverse that if we don’t know why it’s happening and what we need, what adjustments we need and what we need to invest in to reverse these trends.”

Ms. Klein said just because information is not in the achievement report does not mean that it is not being looked at by principals and teachers at the schools. She said administrators and teachers are looking at the data at each school to determine what changes they should make to improve student outcomes.

Ms. Kartha said the Board needs to know what programs are successful and which are not and whether to invest in certain programs or to cut certain programs. “That’s where we struggle a little bit,” she said “Seeing the data is great. And then what? What are the recommendations of what to do next?”

Ms. Lindsay-Ryan said, “That’s particularly important where schools don’t all have the same interventions.”

Board member Joey Hailpern said the District is near the end of its current five-year strategic plan and is about to embark on its next long-term plan with its new Superintendent, Dr. Devon Horton. “That going to be a big task. We don’t know what the next plan is yet,” he said.

“One of the things I love about the report is that the report doesn’t hide our needs. The data is in there. Not does it highlight the needs as though it’s the only thing that exists. In the prior reports, it felt like it was a bashing of our kids, our teachers, our community. This put the people at the front of it.

“The first thing we need to do as a community is to celebrate our children and celebrate our teachers.

“I think there’s plenty of fodder in here to set new goals, to set new targets to acknowledge the painful rate of change that is so slow for our institution. I absolutely don’t, as white cisgender male, want to be using the word patience as a replacement for my feeling of urgency and angst because it’s there too, but strategic planning does take time and I want to know realistically how much time do we need to get to where we want to go.”

Board member Sergio Hernandez said this report was a big improvement, but he would like to see the next report include measures for social and emotional learning and physical development.

Ms. Tanyavutti said she appreciated the blending of the qualitative and the quantitative information. She said she would like more analysis in the next report, and would like to see information included about the equity work the District is doing.

Board members did not ask administrators what they plan to do to address the opportunity gaps, but last June administrators outlined seven strategies to improve achievement of black and Latinx students that they are in the process of implementing this year. They provided an update on their progress last month.

Bring Discussions to the Schools

Ms. Mendoza said she thought the reports on each of the District’s schools are the most valuable part of the overall achievement report. She said there is a lot to celebrate in the Oakton school report. “I would hope this is being discussed at the community school level and that principals are having a town hall meeting, of sorts, with their communities and saying ‘This is your health report. This is where our students are doing well and this is where we need to grow.’”

Ms. Klein said, “That’s my hope also. That’s hopefully the intended use of the school profiles. It’s with the school communities as a learning opportunity to really have those discussions.”

Ms. Lindsay-Ryan said she hoped there would be candid and transparent conversations. If we’re only celebrating the successes and trying to diminish or downplay or hide whatever the failures are we’re not going to solve the problems.”

Ms. Kartha said, “I hope those are happening at the school level. I do think we need to prioritize that.”

The Impact of Poverty on Opportunity

The achievement report characterizes the disparities in test scores as “opportunity gaps.” One factor that can impact a child’s opportunities is household income.   

Last year, the District provided the RoundTable with income data for the 2018-19 school year: 72% of the District’s black students were from low-income households, and 90% of that group qualified for free lunch (which is a lower-income level than reduced-fee lunch); 63% of Latinx students were from low-income households, and 82% of that group qualified for free lunch; 7% of white students were from low-income households and 86% of that group qualified for free lunch.

This is a long-standing pattern. For the last five years, approximately 70% of the black students enrolled in District 65 qualified for free lunch, and an additional 6-8% qualified for reduced-fee lunch. In contrast, about 6% of white students qualified for free or reduced-fee lunch.

Using data available from the Stanford University Education Data Archive, Mr. Zavitkovsky determined that black students in School District 65 are at the 16th National Family Income Percentile, compared to white students who are at the 98th percentile.

The differences in income levels are stark, and differences in the degree of wealth and the corresponding opportunities matter. In a video presentation titled “The Rise in the Income Achievement Gap, on Nov. 10, 2016, Dr. Reardon said, “Poor children lag about three to four grades behind their high income peers in school, and middle class children lag about two grade levels behind their high income peers in school.” 

In his presentation at ETHS on May 4, 2017, Dr. Reardon said, “There’s lots of reasons that provide opportunities for white students in Evanston. The same is not true for African American and low-income students. They’re not failing. They are well above what you would predict, but they are still well below the level of scores of white and affluent students.

 “To reduce educational inequality we need to think about strategies that involve whole communities, not just the school system,” said Dr. Reardon. “We need to think about early childhood opportunities, equality of neighborhood environments, supports for families with children to make sure they can be the best parents, the first teachers, for their children. We need to think then about how the school system can sort of integrate with those other community organizations so there’s a wrap-around focus on equity.”

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...