At Monday night’s meeting of the Evanston Township High School District 202 Board of Education, administrators offered updates on student reading and participation in Advanced Placement courses. The COVID-19 pandemic has presented challenges to student learning, standardized test performance and educational progress.
Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction Pete Bavis reminded the board members that this year’s ETHS seniors have only experienced one fully normal, uninterrupted pre-pandemic school year, when they were ninth graders. Students in all other grade levels have conducted their entire high school careers in a confusing and chaotic pandemic world, Bavis noted.
Overall, 792 students took an AP exam in the 2020-21 academic year, down nearly 19% from the 972 who did so in 2018-19, the last school year not affected by COVID-19. The percentage of AP students earning a score of 3 or higher on an AP exam – the typical threshold for receiving college credit – fell from 81% in 2018-19 to 66% last school year.
Those numbers represent the lowest number of students taking AP exams since the 2011-12 school year and the lowest percentage of students scoring a 3 or better since 2015-16.
Additionally, in terms of the raw overall number of AP exams taken by ETHS students, scores of 3 or higher fell by 30% from 2018-19 to 2020-21. Scores of 4 or higher saw an even more precipitous decline, decreasing by 45% during that time period, from a total of 986 scores of 4 or better to a total of 538.
‘What we’ve seen is a perfect storm’
AP test-taking and scores for ETHS Black and Latino students were hurt the most. The number of Black students who took an AP exam fell 39% from 2018-19 to 2020-21, and the number of Black students scoring a 3 or higher on an AP exam dropped 51% over the same time period.
Meanwhile, 24% fewer Latino students took an AP exam last year compared with 2018-19, and the number of passing scores among Latino students decreased 43%. ETHS also saw declines in test-taking and passing rates for white students (down 15% and 21%, respectively), but the decreases were notably smaller than those among Black and Latino students.
“I don’t want to call it a crisis in the making, but I want to come very close to calling it a crisis in the making,” Bavis said at the Feb. 7 meeting. “What we’ve seen is a perfect storm of the COVID pandemic, a struggle with continuity over the school year, shifting assessment landscapes. For example, the SAT is going to go to an all-online version. We’ve seen the AP exams given online, we’ve seen exams given in-person, we’ve seen a combination.”
Given all of the obstacles to learning that students, staff and families have faced over the last two years, ETHS needed a hard reset this year in order to provide additional student support and make up for lost learning time, according to Bavis. Considering the demand for more structure and resources for students, teamASAP – a group of teachers dedicated to making AP courses accessible and manageable – has organized a number of events online and in-person this school year.
Among other programs aimed at helping students in the fall, teamASAP held its AP Fair at the high school in December, a virtual Pathways to AP Forum and a series of lunch meetings for students in AP courses to collaborate and discuss their class experiences and learning strategies. The group also created a new AP Black Affinity Space for Black students enrolled in AP courses to hear about their shared class experiences and voice concerns or struggles in a safe environment.
In response to the AP report, Board Vice President Monique Parsons said the board’s goal should be to “eliminate the predictability” of white students dominating the AP space while students of color, particularly Black students, struggle to access and succeed in those courses.
“We have so much work to do, and I’m so proud of our students. I’m so proud especially of the Black students that still struggle through this, as hard as it is to sit there and to finish [an AP course] completely because I know the challenges,” Parsons said. “But I got a visual. You painted a visual for me tonight, and somehow, the reset needs to dig deep.”
More than half of freshmen take reading support class
Also at Monday’s gathering, ETHS Director of Academic Supports Kiwana Brown provided board members with a report on literacy programs at the school. Most notably, student enrollment in freshman and sophomore reading courses designed to improve literacy proficiency has increased significantly during the pandemic. This year, 55% of ETHS freshmen are taking a reading support class, up from 31% in the 2019-20 school year. Similarly, enrollment in the sophomore reading support course has grown from 27% of 10th graders in 2019-20 to 51% this year.
Brown highlighted how donations funded last summer’s renovation of the ETHS Literacy Lab. The lab provides one-on-one support to about 50 students who need help with reading comprehension and literacy skills.
Additionally, ETHS runs the Summer Lift Program, a 16-day, reading-intensive course for District 65 and 202 students. Last summer, 25 students participated in the program, improving their reading skills by an average of 2.6 grade levels in just 16 days of instruction, according to Brown.
“It all boils down to this: Students who are reading at grade level historically continue to do so, but we have observed that there’s a widening gap for students who strive to read,” Brown said. “What I plan to do with my team is to help close those gaps in every way that we can.”
Later in the meeting, School Board President Pat Savage-Williams gave a brief update on the search for a new superintendent, emphasizing that she understands some community members may be frustrated with the slowness of the process. Taking the time to find the right person for the position is important for the board, she said. The district has received more than 1,800 responses to its community survey designed to gather feedback on the search.
Additionally, several virtual meetings are scheduled for the coming weeks for students and community members to meet with representatives from the Alma Advisory Group, the search firm hired by the board to assist in the process. Ultimately, Savage-Williams and other board members said they hope to have a new superintendent hired and in place by some time in June, if not sooner.
“We’ll be pulling all this information together and meeting to develop a profile [of an ideal candidate], and I’m looking forward to that meeting,” Savage-Williams said. “We will then look at that profile and determine what our next steps will be as a board.”