A central focus of the Feb. 24 joint meeting of the District 65 and 202 School Boards and administrators was reading proficiency.

Six years ago, in 2014, the two School Boards adopted a Joint Literacy Goal: “District 65 and District 202 will ensure that all students are proficient readers and college and career ready by the time they reach 12th grade.”

The two Districts have now agreed on measures to assess how well the goal is being met in grades K-12.

The process was complicated because each District uses a separate measure of assessing a student’s academic level. District 65 uses the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test, which gives results in a numeric score, called a RIT score. District 202 uses the STAR assessment, which gives results in a grade equivalency score. A score of 8.3, for example, is the equivalent of the third month of eighth grade.

Although the Districts have agreed on a RIT score in the spring for eighth-graders that would be an acceptable match for a ninth-grader in the fall, that level of achievement might yet prove inadequate for high school success.

Board members acknowledged that the data reflected the persistent achievement, or opportunity, gap between white and minority students  

Joint But Not Mutual Assessments

Members of the team that created the joint assessment measures and presented the information at the Feb. 24 meeting were Carrie Levy, Director of Research, Evaluation and Assessment at Evanston Township High School; Pete Bavis, Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction at ETHS; Kylie Klein, Director of Research, Accountability, and Data at District 65; and Stacy Beardsley, Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction at District 65.

“We have worked collaboratively,” Dr. Bavis said, “and we took seriously the charge from the last joint meeting to develop a reporting structure that would hold both Districts accountable and progress over time and view a host of very straightforward data using two different measures.”

He said the team agreed on benchmarks regarding thresholds and proficiency.

In comparing the benchmark scores on the STAR assessment with the MAP test, the team found that 85% of the students either met or did not meet both thresholds – a high degree of consistency, Dr. Bavis noted. The outliers were those who met the threshold on only one assessment.

“This allows us to broaden the two measures, STAR and MAP. In subsequent reports, we will use data from 2017 and 2018. We will measure progress toward the Joint Literacy Goal.  … Tonight’s presentation is about measures, benchmarks and agreed-upon reporting structures.”

He added, “While talking about numbers is important, it is also important to note that the reporting structure allows us to monitor progress for the first time – to be able to have discussions going forward and to be able to address both what we’re doing collectively – and we’re doing plenty collectively – but also what each district is doing individually to contribute to the numbers.”

The chart below shows the percent of black, Latinx and white students in third through 12th grades in Districts 65 and 202 who were deemed “proficient” in literacy in 2019.

As he did at the Feb. 10 District 202 Board meeting, Dr. Bavis emphasized the importance of reading. “Reading remains a challenge for too many students at District 202. That challenge has consequences attached to it. [Not being able to read] curtails student access to electives – to biology in ninth grade and to AP classes in junior and senior years.” 

District 202 Board member Gretchen Livingston said she was glad to see the information and added, “I think you’re not here to talk of the substance [of the assessment] but I think you would be remiss not to take note of the substance, which is – although these are some very positive results, which you can see – disturbing.”

“We see a pretty enormous disparity – not surprising – based on students’ color. … I would encourage us not to gloss over the fact that we still have these enormous disparities and to understand that the point of the work is not just to lay it out in front of everybody but to have a conversation.

“I’m wondering how we plan to communicate our information not just to the Boards at our annual meeting, but how you are going to communicate it to the community. I think it’s very important for the entire community to know where exactly we stand, that we see it, we acknowledge it, and we’re doing something about it.” Ms. Livingston added she feels District 65 does a better job than District 202 of publishing information like this on its website.

“I would be interested next year,” Ms. Livingston said, “in how you are going to share this so that the community is paying attention and appreciating it.”

Dr. Beardsley said the team members had not had that conversation, because they were focused on the report. As the team fills in the data later this year, she said, that will enhance the message to the community. She said they are also looking at “how we can have members of the community influence our work.”

Looking for the Data, Searching for the ‘Why?’

Ms. Livingston continued her questions, “Is there anything of the substantive results that jumps out at you – that you’re noticing here for the first time that you hadn’t previously noticed in your work – in relation to race or income?

“Or this just, ‘OK, yeah. This is something we’ve been seeing for a long time’?

“Or are you thinking, ‘Hmm, this is interesting. There’s something that’s been revealed here’?”

Dr. Bavis said one of the things that struck him was the median difference in grade-equivalence scores between the students who were deemed “proficient” and those who were not. The median grade-equivalency score of the students deemed “proficient” was 12.5. The proficiency, or grade-equivalency goal for ninth-graders is 8.3; students who did not meet that goal had grade-equivalency scores of 6.1, 6.2, 6.3 or 6.7, indicating that they were at least two grade-levels behind in grade-equivalence. In some cases, however, they were six grade-levels behind their peers.

“It’s an interesting context that leads to the bimodal distribution, and there are things you can do once you know that distribution,” he said, such as supports and summer programs. 

Referring to a table that showed the percentages of black, Latinx and white ninth-graders in 2018-19 who did not meet the Joint Goal, Ms. Livingston said, “Let’s go find them right now. To me, it’s not a raw number – it feels very real and very human and suggests to me we can get our hands around it right now.” She added she is “very glad we are working together as two districts.”

Dr. Beardsley said, “Similarly to what [Dr. Bavis] said, we are talking about students who have not met the Joint Goal and what is the distance [for them] to the goal and can we get them closer to the Goal.”

Ms. Klein said she felt the data on matched cohorts [that track one group of students over several years] was very valuable, because it shows information about the same students over time and divides the students into four mutually exclusive groups.

“Matched cohorts provide a lot of actionable, really salient information for school teachers to work collaboratively on a shared problem, to really investigate with an inquiry lens using data to inform their dialogue around ‘What strategies were used for these students? What strategies were working well? What strategies did not work well in eighth grade but could be tried differently in ninth grade?’”

District 202 Board member Pat Maunsell said, “I’m glad you have a place where you have a way you can look at the data. It’s really, really troubling. It’s not new.” She said she would like the next report to include how teachers in grades six through 10 are working together.

“I hope the next time the report can include more ideas and strategies of how to work together. My understanding is that whether they’re in kindergarten or 12th grade, they’re all our kids. We want the community to look at them as all our kids, not kids in separate districts,” she continued.

District 65 Board member Sergio Hernandez said, “This mirrors scores and achievement across the country of children who are marginalized … We don’t have to wait. We see the urgency.”

District 202 Board Vice President Monique Parsons said, “Especially [the data that] jumps out and what we know the number of our black and Latinx students [not meeting the Goal] is in the triple digits and growing – as early as third grade, the class of 2028. …

“I know it’s difficult and extremely complicated, but let’s not over-complicate what we need to do. … hopefully, we can stop the bleeding that’s happening with our third-graders.

“The information is not new, so we know it. So, what are we going to do to push this forward and stop it?”

District 202 Board member Jude Laude said, “I think there has been some movement since last time. And I think I want to echo what has been said but say it in this way. The numbers are going to be the numbers, but there are stories behind these numbers.” He said it was fitting that representatives from Evanston Cradle to Career initiative had presented information at the meeting, “because that’s where we can get to know the whole student and focus more on the home.

“I think we have tremendous resources in these two Districts. And I think we need to focus on the ‘Why?’ and help the ‘Why?’ inform our practice. And I think it has to happen at a granular level as well as at this level. We need to make timely interventions.

“There are children in trouble; their lives are at stake… I would like to see us work together and focus on the ‘Why?’.”

Student 202 Board member Echo Allen asked, “have you considered other ways of evaluating students for the report – just to create a clearer picture and find out more specifically why this is happening?”

Dr. Beardsley said, “We are trying to rein in one specific data item. Within our District, there are multiple assessments, and we have supports – to diagnose problems for students not at grade level and to try to put those students back at grade level.

“So, there are other assessment tools we can use. The way in which we use those to be able to explore the ‘Why?’ – I would say we’re probably stronger on the academic front.

District 202 Board member Elizabeth Rolewicz asked how reading is taught at District 65. “I have kids in District 65, and I think the general philosophy is a balanced literacy approach,” she said – “picking up a book and sort of gaining a natural interest in what the book is, and some of it is science and phonics and decoding a word.

“What I’ve been seeing in practice isn’t very balanced for my kids. My kids haven’t learned any decoding skills in schools and phonics

“It’s more like, ‘Here’s a book with pictures – you figure out what the words are.’ …. In my personal experience, that’s not reading. If a third-grader can’t sound out a word syllable-by-syllable, he’s not reading. They’re guessing and they are using guesses to find out what the story is about – which is what I’ve seen with my kids.”

Ms. Rolewicz added, “I don’t see a balance. It’s not working, there’s no reason at home – [my son] has engaged parents and access to books at our home. I’m watching a child that can’t read; he’s 10 years old. I’m wondering if District 65 – are you really looking a ‘Is what we’re doing really contributing?’ Should you revisit how reading is taught in the classroom? … I see it as there are plenty of kids who need a phonics approach.”

Dr. Beardsley responded, “Right now we do have a very balanced approached. There’s a lot of good that has been done. We have a literacy frame that was built three years ago for K-3. Right now, there are three specific components – a reading workshop, a writing workshop and a language workshop. Within the language workshop, there is a phonics curriculum in K-1.”

“I appreciate the comment. I think there are some very specific things we have done, such as having supports in reading that is standards-aligned, and we are digging into the materials to make sure they are aligned.”

Ms. Rolewicz said, “Just figuring out how it is implemented in the classroom. … I think teachers, the more seasoned teachers, have specific ways they want to teach reading, and that kind of weighs heavily in the classroom.”

‘It’s a Community Problem’

District 65 Board member Rebeca Mendoza thanked the team for their work and said, “I still don’t know how the community understands this and if there’s a way to make it more understandable to the community. … We need help.”

She asked community members to volunteer their time. “Our issue is a community issue. Our kids are telling us they need our help – they’re not reading. I’m asking the community for help.”

District 65 Board member Joey Hailpern said, “None of this data is surprising, I do think there are success stories that are out there and I think it’s important for them to be told, too. We can begin to hear ‘How did that success story happen?’ and ‘Can it be multiplied?’ If so, how? If not, why not? What are the barriers? What are the resources needed to take down those barriers? There are lives being changed, and I’d like to hear them.”

Referring to the plan to have teachers in sixth through 10th grades meet, he said, “When teachers start talking, they find a slice of excellence they want to steal from one another.”

More Data or More Action?

District 65 Board President Suni Kartha said, “Thank you, and I appreciate that a lot of work went into this. My question is, why go back to 2017? Would you go back to when the Boards first adopted the joint goal? Is there a reason we can’t have that historical data?”

Dr. Beardsley said, “We know we have good, solid, reliable data from 2017-18. We thought 2017-18 were the right years to deliver. We can go back.”

Ms. Klein said, “I think it’s nice to see where we’ve been and are going forward to identify the best practices and strategies. We could do that, but I’d say it might be that we’re not able to invest as much time, effort and resources into forward-thinking.”

Dr. Bavis said, “I think three years of data provides adequate data going forward. There were no halcyon days when the reading scores were high. This is an endemic issue, and there’s no reason to believe I we go back five, six, seven, eight years that we’ll find something different. If we go back three and go forward and get quality data …” He said he thought adding information about the “Why?” could add some more texture to the report.

“There’s no lack of data,” he said.

District 202 Board President Pat Savage-Williams said, “I’m so glad to hear that, because I’ve been sitting up here pretty frustrated. We’ve gotten so much into the data that we’ve lost the students.”

Looking at the data, she said, “I see individual students. I see failed student-teacher relationships. This isn’t new data; this isn’t something that surprises me, but it upsets me.

“It’s not just about strategies. That’s not the whole story. It’s about how students feel; it’s about social-emotional learning; it’s about how they approach a task.

“We passed this goal in 2014; it’s now 2020. I don’t want to start pointing fingers, blaming each other, blaming family or students. We are the educators. We know how to educate students. So, when are we going to start looking at the Literacy Goal? How do we hold everybody accountable?

“I want to see us really work on the Literacy Goal. I don’t want us to come back and look at more [data]. I want to see ‘This is what we’re doing.’ And, yes, there are challenges in our community. I think we have to recognize this is our reality. The rubber meets the road right here.”

District 65 Board Vice President Anya Tanyavutti said she is concerned about not having the 2014-15 data. She said she would like to see what things looked like when the goal was established, and she thought they need the information to see trends over five years.

Ms. Parsons said, “If we keep going backward there will be less resources. As far as I’m concerned, sitting here, I have all the information I need. The collective board here need to agree that we have all the information we need and I don’t want to keep going backward. I want to support our experts and say, ‘This is what we set out to do,’ and now we have to do the work

“We are working on the class of 2028. I can’t keep going backward. We need to create some strategies. I guess that is what we have to agree on and not keep giving one more thing for our staff to do and come back and report on one more thing.

“I certainly agree,” said Ms. Livingston.

Ms. Kartha said, “I think it was a legitimate question to ask for more data. Five years does seem to be more helpful, but I will trust the experts. It’s important to just underscore it’s uncomfortable data. It’s not surprising data. … The narrative has been that the fault is with District 65, and I think it’s demoralizing our teachers. … This is not a District 65 problem; this is a community problem.”

Ms. Parsons said, “I said it’s our responsibility.”

Ms. Savage-Williams said, “This joint goal is for the kids in grades K-12. We’ve said several times tonight we are here because we are concerned about all the students in the community.”

District 65 Board member Elizabeth Lindsay-Ryan said, “I want to be assured that the lack of surprise is not a lack of outrage. I want to hear from the experts: Where did you see growth? We need radical, risk-taking ideas. I’d like to hear from the educators.”

Mr. Hernandez said it would be good to know what is working.

Ms. Klein said, “We all believe that we need to identify the best practices and bring that data forward.”

Phil Ehrhardt, one of the Interim District 65 Superintendents, said that he and co-Interim Superintendent Heidi Wennstrom enjoyed working with District 202 Superintendent Eric Witherspoon. “This is hard work. … This is work we can do together because this is all our kids.”

Mary Gavin

Mary Gavin is the founder of the Evanston RoundTable. After 23 years as its publisher and manager, she helped transition the RoundTable to nonprofit status in 2021. She continues to write, edit, mentor...