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The District 65 School Board entered into a new five-year contract with Superintendent Devon Horton on March 14. It replaces the one that was entered into in December 2019. Multiyear contracts define how school boards will hold superintendents accountable.

The new contract significantly reduces the board’s expectations for Black and Latinx students.

The 2019 contract set a goal for the superintendent to significantly reduce the achievement gap. It set a goal to: “Increase student achievement for Black and Latinx students and significantly reduce the achievement gap related to college and career readiness standards for reading and mathematics.”

In order to meet that goal, the district would have had to raise the achievement levels of a significant percentage of Black and Latinx students. The district would have had to accelerate their academic growth.

The 2022 contract abandons the goal to significantly reduce the achievement gap related to college and career readiness. Instead, the new goal is: “At the end of each school year, there will be at least a 3% increase in the number of Black and Latinx students making expected gains in Reading and Math on MAP,” the Measures of Academic Progress.

For MAP, making “expected gains” means making the average growth of one’s academic peers. Making expected gains does not mean making accelerated growth.

By defining success in terms of meeting expected gains on MAP, the board has eliminated the expectation that the district will accelerate the growth of a significant number of Black and Latinx students and raise them up to higher, and in most cases much higher, achievement levels. Instead, the board now expects average growth.  

With this new goal, the board can claim success if there is a small increase in the percentage of Black and Latinx students who keep pace with their peers nationwide – those who started out the school year in the same grade and at the same academic level.

The problem is that many students in School District 65, particularly Black and Latinx students, are not meeting college readiness benchmarks. In pre-pandemic years, about 20% of Black students, 35% of Latinx students, and 80% of white students met college readiness benchmarks on the MAP test in math and reading.  

If Black and Latinx students have average growth over the next five years, they will be in about the same place as they are now, and the achievement gap will be about the same as it is now.

To move the needle, the district needs to accelerate the growth of Black and Latinx students, not tread water with average growth. The board’s new academic goal, though, expects average growth, not accelerated growth. In terms of holding the superintendent accountable, the new academic goal permits the status quo. It permits the achievement gaps measured in terms of reading proficiency and college readiness.

This article describes what meeting “expected gains” on the MAP test means; it gives an example of where third graders scoring at the 40th percentile in math would be at the end of eighth grade if they just met “expected gains” in fourth through eighth grades; it provides a table providing the same information with respect to the third graders who finished third grade at the 30th, 40th, 50th and 60th percentiles in math and reading; it explains why this is a problem at District 65; and it points out that the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA), the owner of the MAP test, and the entity that identified the expected gains, expressly acknowledges their limitations and states that meeting expected gains does not lead to college readiness.

NWEA expressly states that if a school district wants its students to meet certain proficiency levels, such as college readiness, it may customize its growth targets to lead to that result. District 65 has not done so.

What does meeting ‘expected gains’ on MAP mean?

NWEA has identified expected gains – or growth targets – for students in its norm studies, most recently in its 2020 norm study.  Under NWEA’s model, an individual student’s growth target is the average growth of students who are in the same grade and who started out the school year at the same achievement level.

Under this growth model, students who are behind at the end of third grade are still behind at the end of eighth grade if they just meet their “expected gains” or growth targets each year.   

In its 2020 norm study, NWEA determined the average amount that students in the nation grew between a MAP pre-test and a MAP post-test in math and reading. It did this by grade level, and by the starting achievement level of students in each grade. The data is provided in tables contained in Appendix D of the 2020 norm study.

For example, in its study NWEA determined the average growth of fourth graders who had a MAP score of 197.31 on the MAP test in math at the end of third grade. That score corresponded to the 40th national percentile, according to NWEA. NWEA determined that, on average, fourth graders who had a score of 197.31 on the spring MAP test in third grade increased their score by 9.61 points between the spring MAP test in third grade and the spring MAP test in fourth grade. Thus, 9.61 became the targeted growth for fourth graders who had a score of 197.31 on the third grade test.

If a student who scored a 197.31 on the third grade MAP test in math just met growth targets in fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth grades, that student would have a score of 229.48 in math on the spring MAP test in eighth grade. The college readiness score for an eighth grader in math is 242.73, so the student would be 13.25 points behind. While 13.25 points may not seem like a lot, the targeted growth in eighth grade for this cohort of students was 4.69 points. So, one could say the student is behind by about 2.8 years of expected growth (13.25/4.69 = 2.8).

Yet, under the school board’s new goal, this would constitute success.

The table below shows how just meeting growth targets plays out for third graders who scored at the 30th, 40th, 50th and 60th percentile ranks on the spring MAP test. The table shows: a) the MAP scores of third graders who scored at the 30th, 40th, 50th and 60th percentiles on the spring MAP test; b)  the MAP scores they would have at the end of eighth grade, if they just met their growth targets in fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth grades; c) the number of  points they would be behind in terms of meeting NWEA’s college readiness benchmarks at the end of eighth grade, if they just met their growth targets each year; and d) the average targeted growth for eighth graders at each achievement level – to give context.

The eighth grade college readiness score at the end of eighth grade is 242.73 for math, and 227.10 for reading.

Again, while the number of points below NWEA’s college readiness benchmarks may seem small, the targeted growth is small. As pointed out in the example, fourth graders who started out at the 40th percentile in math may be 2.8 years of growth behind at the end of eighth grade in terms of being on track to college readiness if they just meet growth targets.

The table indicates that students who consistently meet growth targets are not as far behind NWEA’s college readiness benchmark in reading as they are in math by the end of eighth grade. Even so, these students are lagging behind NWEA’s college readiness benchmark for reading. But it is also important to note that NWEA’s college readiness benchmark score for reading on the spring eighth grade MAP test is 227.10.  And, School Districts 65 and 202 have jointly found in a study that a score of 227 indicates that a student is reading at a level below grade level, essentially at the level of a “typical” student in the third month of eighth grade. The fourth column in the above table shows how much students are falling short of that lower level of achievement. 

The problem with ‘average’ growth

To be proficient in reading at the end of eighth grade and to be on track to college readiness in reading and math at the end of eighth grade, many students in District 65, particularly Black and Latinx students, need to accelerate their growth. NWEA’s standard growth targets, however, are based on average growth, not accelerated growth.

The RoundTable made this point in an article published Dec. 30, 2019. The article contained extensive data, including data provided by Paul Zavitkovsky, a Data Assessment Specialist with the Center for Urban Education Leadership at the University of Illinois at Chicago. The data demonstrated that if students just make their growth targets between fifth and eighth grades, they are not closing gaps in opportunity and achievement and, in many cases, are losing ground against college and career readiness benchmarks. They are simply keeping pace with their peers. Although the 2019 article was based on the growth targets in NWEA’s 2015 norm study, the methods used by NWEA were the same as those used in its 2020 study, and student growth targets in the 2020 study are still based on average growth.

And as the table above illustrates (based on the growth targets in the 2020 norm study), students who finish third grade at the 30th, 40th, 50th and 60th percentiles and who just meet NWEA growth targets are all behind where they need to be at the end of eighth grade to be proficient in reading and to meet college readiness benchmarks in reading and math. The expected gains identified in the 2020 norm study have the same type of limitations as the 2015 norm study.

Asked to comment on this, Zavitkovsky said in 2019, “While these growth targets can be helpful for determining minimum learning expectations, they are grossly misleading for closing chronic opportunity gaps. Currently, only students who already achieve 1.0 to 1.5 years above grade level in the spring of fifth grade will be on track to college readiness by the end of eighth grade by simply making expected gains.

“In her book Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, Zaretta Hammond writes: ‘To understand structural racialization … we have to entertain the idea that a series of seemingly benign or supposedly well-intended policies actually create a negative cumulative and reinforcing effect that supports rather than diminishes, the status quo within institutions.’

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

In April 2021, the RoundTable asked Kylie Klein, then the district’s Director of Research, Accountability and Data, why the district continued to use NWEA’s expected gain targets when meeting those expected gains, in essence, maintains the status quo and perpetuates opportunity gaps.

Klein told the RoundTable, “There’s a lot of different metrics that we use. That’s not the goal. We want to go, of course, further than that. This is one metric we are using to help inform the community. It’s not the only metric. We’re always looking for other opportunities to improve student outcomes.”

Now, however, it is the board’s five-year goal. It is the only metric to measure student achievement in the Superintendent’s five-year contract.

NWEA acknowledges limitations of its growth model

Significantly, NWEA’s 2020 norm study expressly acknowledges that its growth targets are not designed to provide targets that will accelerate students’ growth to a point where they will be on track to college readiness or meet a certain proficiency standard.

The study says, at page 84, “It is important to note that while these norms describe observed achievement and growth trends for U.S. students, they provide no guidelines about necessary growth or achievement relative to any established academic standards. For example, the norms provide no information about what RIT score determines whether a student is on ‘grade level,’ or how much growth is needed to attain grade-level ‘mastery.’ …

“The individual student growth projections provided in NWEA reports represent average growth (i.e., 50th percentile conditional), relative to the norms, but provide no assurance that students will meet state-defined proficiency or other standards by demonstrating that level of growth. For example, a low achieving Grade 3 student may make above-average growth between fall and spring yet still fall below the state’s reading proficiency standard. …

“The norms provide information about average achievement and growth for U.S. students but provide no information about necessary or sufficient achievement or growth in any U.S. state relative to grade-level proficiency or college readiness standards or aspirational growth goals.”

NWEA says in its 2020 norm study that if a school district is interested in accelerating students’ growth or closing achievement gaps, it can set customized accelerated growth targets to achieve those goals, and NWEA’s study, at pages 84-85, provides suggestions on how to do this.

District 65 has not done so.

Instead, the District 65 School Board has adopted a five-year goal that expects Black and Latinx students will stay on par with their nationwide peers who started out the year at the same level of achievement. In its five-year contract with the Superintendent, the board abandons a stated expectation that the Superintendent will accelerate the achievement of Black and Latinx students and significantly close opportunity and achievement gaps.

Larry Gavin

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...

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  1. I enthusiastically applaud the tenacity and clarity of Larry Gavin’s
    reporting on the new dismal D65 academic goals. Why aren’t Evanstonians who are deeply concerned about equity, Black lives, and racial Justice up in arms? What’s more critical than holding our school board and administrators accountable for setting, and reaching, rigorous academic achievement goals?

  2. Totally unacceptable. We don’t and certainly the affected students do not need need more numbers, studies and educational double speak attempting to explain under performing efforts and results as well, okay comparatively speaking. On par with nationwide peers just ain’t good enough. What is wrong with our school system that educators cannot do the hard work to boost under performing students to truly higher levels of achievement? Yes, the past two years have been an all around disaster in our schools for many students, teachers and staff. That may be a reason but it is not an excuse. Evanston schools must do better to help all students try hard to reach beyond their potential. It is past time to do the work to accelerate the achievement of Black and Latinx students and significantly close opportunity and achievement gaps. To not do it is a systemic failure.

  3. This is a sad state of affairs, indeed. My children are now middle aged, and when they were in District 65, I remember a few years when the entire focus of the school improvement team was to raise the achievement tests levels of the lowest 15% of children at the school. At the time, while this may have been a worthy goal in itself, I was unhappy that the school improvement team was ignoring the other 85% percent of the students, who likely also had needs that should have been addressed.
    Clearly, the problem of the achievement gap, while having been focused on for at least a generation or more, in Evanston, is not being addressed with the right strategies…evidently, with the additional challenges posed by the pandemic, District 65 administration has essentially “given up” for the next five years.
    It seems to me that the challenges of the achievement gap must be addressed in a much more holistic way, by providing additional supports to both children and families in Evanston. There have been a variety of efforts in this direction, e.g., the tasks that have been worked on through the Cradle to Career effort, but most of these have not been realized in the past five years or so of this community wide project that has received millions of dollars in funding.
    It is a complicated nut to crack, to be sure, the obstacles to achievement faced by many minority children, but it is one that has to be addressed through a multi pronged, holistic approach that involves supports for children and families throughout Evanston. I’m not sure why this has not happened after so many years of focus, but the solution at this point doesn’t appear to me to simply give up.

  4. It’s almost like the problem of closing the achievement gap, as an actual, obtainable goal cannot lay solely on the shoulders of public education. What is the missing component to the picture that would help realize and complete the goal?