The above chart shows the percentage of kindergartners who were “kindergarten ready” when they entered School District 65 in the last six years. For the school years between SY’15 and SY’18, the chart shows that the percentage of students who were kindergarten ready ranged from between 53% and 56%. In SY’19 and SY’20, the percentages of students who were kindergarten ready dropped to 49% and 39% respectively.

In light of the emphasis placed on ensuring that all students would enter kindergarten ready to learn, this data shocked many people in the community.

On Aug. 31, Kylie Klein, Director of Research, Accountability and Data, and Ajoni Hopkins, Senior Project Specialist, provided a report explaining why the percentage of students who were kindergarten ready declined in the last two years. They identified two main factors: 1) a decline in the percentage of students who met the benchmark in Alphabet Recognition; and 2) the elimination of one of the five subtests given in SY’20 (i.e., the school year 2019 – 2020).

ISEL and Kindergarten Readiness

The Illinois Snapshot of Early Literacy (ISEL) is an assessment of literacy development that is administered to entering kindergartners to determine where they are proficient and where they need additional support. It is a one-to-one assessment orally given by a teacher to a kindergartner.

ISEL has historically had five subtests to measure early literacy skills: Alphabet Recognition; Phonemic Awareness; One-to-One Matching; Story Listening; and Letter Sounds.

Under a definition of kindergarten readiness established by the District, if a student scores above the 50th percentile in four of the five subtests, they are considered kindergarten ready.

The report for the first time discussed that the number of subtests administered has changed over time:

  • Before SY’18, the report says a student had to take at least four subtests, but some teachers administered tests in all five areas. The report does not state how many students took tests in all five areas.
  • In SY’18 and SY’19, students needed to be tested in all five areas to have a valid score.
  • In SY’20, the subtest Story Listening was removed from ISEL, and students were only tested in the other four areas.

Under the District’s definition, if a student scored at or above the 50th percentile in at least four subtests, the student was regarded as kindergarten ready.

Alphabet Recognition

The report concluded that one key reason for the declines in kindergarten readiness in SY’19 and FY’20 was a decline in the percentage of students who scored above the 50th percentile in Alphabet Recognition.

Between SY’17 and SY’20, the percentage of students meeting the benchmark in Alphabet Recognition dropped from 67% to 54%, a 13 point drop.

The District also concluded that the declines in Alphabet Recognition were consistent across all subgroups of students, including subgroups analyzed by race/ethnicity, free/reduced-price lunch status (low-income), English language learner (ELL) status, and the students’ previous pre-K program.

Mr. Hopkins said while different percentages of students met kindergarten readiness in FY’18, they all showed a “consistent drop in their scores regardless of demographic group.”

In FY’20 about 47% of Black kindergartners met the benchmark in Alphabet Recognition, and 37% of Latinx students, 64% of White students, 38% of low-income students, and 27% of ELL students met the benchmark in Alphabet Recognition.

“We see the declines in Alphabet Recognition as one of the important contributing factors to the reduction in the percentage of students who are Kindergarten ready,” says the report.

The report showed there were declines in two other subject areas between SY’17 and SY’20. The percentage of students meeting the benchmark in Letter Sounds declined from 66% to 60%; and the percentage of students meeting the benchmark in One-to-One matching declined from 71% to 65%.

During the six-year period, the percentage of students who scored above the benchmark in Phonemic Awareness and Story Listening “has relatively stayed the same,” according to the report.

The Test Administration

The report concluded that another factor that contributed to the decline in the percentage of students who were kindergarten ready in the last three years was two changes in test administration.

First, starting in 2018, students were required to take all five subtests in order to have a valid score. Previously students were required to take four out of five of the subtests, although some students did take all five. 

The report says that in the years FY’18 to FY’20, “more students did not receive any kindergarten readiness designation than in previous years because they did not complete the right number of assignments.”

The report says that the following number of students had an “invalid” test result in the years indicated: 16 in FY’15; 38 in FY’16; 37 in FY’17; 58 in FY’18; 70 in FY’19; and 72 in FY’20.

The jump in invalid tests in FY’18 and subsequent years suggests that an increase in the percentage of students who were not deemed kindergarten ready was due to their not taking the requisite number of subtests, says the report.

Second, in SY’20, the Story Listening test was removed from the ISEL test, and students only took four subtests, rather than five. Yet, the District’s benchmark for kindergarten readiness remained – a student still needed to score above the 50thpercentile on four tests. This made it more difficult to meet the definition of kindergarten ready.

Thus in FY’20 if a student scored below the 50th percentile on any subtest, the student would be deemed not ready for kindergarten. Before FY’20, if a student scored below the 50th percentile on one subtest, they could still be deemed kindergarten ready if they scored above the 50th percentile on the four other subtests.

 “What we can see happening here is that it’s really a game of odds,” said Mr. Hopkins.  Based on an analysis that he conducted, he said that the percentage of students who were kindergarten ready dropped by about 12 or 13 percentage points due to this change.

The District considered another possible change in the test administration but concluded it was not a factor in the decline of the percentage of students being kindergarten ready.

The change, in 2019, was the implementation of the STEP test for incoming kindergartners at three schools: Lincoln, Washington, and Bessie Rhodes. Kindergartners did not take the ISEL test at those schools. In 2020, Oakton was added. While this reduced the number of students taking the ISEL, Mr. Hopkins said, based on an analysis that he performed, that this did not contribute to the decline in the percentage of students who met the benchmarks on ISEL in SY’19 or SY’20.

The District’s Instructional Response

In light of the conclusion that there has been a decline in Alphabet Recognition, the report says that the District is increasing its “instructional focus on phonemic and phonological awareness (PPA), letter naming, and the basics of phonics (letter sounds) in our Pre-K programming.”

In addition, the report says, “Pre-K teachers are conducting ongoing formative assessment of early literacy skills and participating in cycles of learning around that data. At the primary grade level, we have introduced a phonics curriculum to support development of these foundational literacy skills, which serve as part of our balanced literacy program.”

Board Comments

Board member Suni Kartha said, “We’ve seen the data for years, but having this additional layer of analysis, it’s been really, really helpful.”

Ms. Kartha asked how kindergartners who did not meet the benchmarks on ISEL were doing by third grade. “Are they catching up? Are they falling behind?”

Ms. Klein said, “We have in the past looked at ISEL and DRA [the Developmental Reading Assessment] and kind of tried to map across. It’s very hard when the assessments are measuring different things, and they’re not necessarily compatible. They’re not necessarily made to do those things. But we have done some of that work. But this is a very excellent point and a very fair point. And we know early learners, really their development trajectories are not linear. And so we have to keep kind of our eye on the prize for that long-term benchmark.”

Superintendent Devon Horton said if there is time on the Board’s planning calendar, “We’re going to bring early childhood back to the table.”

Sharon Sprague, Director of Early Childhood Programs, said, “When I first arrived here … I was given an analysis that showed the correlation between students who were not ready based on ISEL and how they were doing by the time they got to third grade. So that data does exist. That’s an older analysis, but it did show a correlation between students who were not ready on ISEL and students who were not ready still in third grade. And it was particularly noted for Black students and Latinx students, that they were not making progress at the same rate.

“So, to say that another way: A white student comes into kindergarten, showing that they are not ready on the ISEL, they recover at a faster rate at a better rate by the time they get to third grade than Black and Latinx students are recovering.

“So this is something that we need to take seriously whether it’s ISEL, whether we’re looking at MPG, our students are not arriving ready. This looks at literacy. We need to look at the whole child as well. Math is also extremely important and social and emotional learning.”

Ms. Sprague said the District added some new practices last year to improve student outcomes, but the school year was cut short due to the pandemic.

Board President Anya Tanyavutti asked administrators to present data from the STEP program showing how prepared students when they enter kindergarten.

Ms. Tanyavutti added, “I think our community broadly speaking was really alarmed by the data in 2019.  I think there’s lots of ways that we process that alarm. Some of us internalize it. Some of us project it. But I think there is a sense of panic in terms of early childhood preparedness. So having more data, having this deconstruction is helpful, and I think getting an idea of what STEP is telling us will be really helpful as well.”

Board member Rebeca Mendoza asked for additional information on how the District assesses English language learners on ISEL. 

Ms. Kartha said, “We’re very fortunate that we do have the early childhood center, JEH, here where we can really talk and make changes and impact how our students are showing up in kindergarten.

“But we also have a very full early childhood community in Evanston outside of JEH that I know, works together and I know, Sharon, that you’re a part of that Early Childhood Council. I know we’re a part of lifting up the early childhood series that is really trying to bring general community awareness around the importance of early childhood and the importance in investing in early childhood.

“So as we’re having these discussions, I know that we’ll be keeping our community partners in mind. This is not just a District 65 issue to solve. This is really a community – we need our community partners to also be involved in problem solving what we can do for our youngest learners.”

Assessing Progress Between Kindergarten and Third Grade

The DRA has been given to first -, second- and third-graders at District 65 to monitor their progress in developing literacy skills at those grade levels.

 Ms. Klein said that the ISEL and DRA assessments are not aligned, and it appears that the DRA is also misaligned with the proficiency levels needed to be on track to college readiness.

The RoundTable has pointed out for several years that the DRA is not aligned with the college readiness benchmarks of the Measures of Academic Progress Test (MAP) or with the “proficiency” level of the Illinois Assessment for 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 benchmark for proficiency.

While the District is assessing the progress of first- through third-graders and assessing the effectiveness of it literacy programs at those grade levels using DRA, the DRA appears to set a lower bar than MAP and the Illinois Assessment of Readiness. 

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...