At the Jan. 17 meeting of the District 65 School Board’s Policy Committee, Shyla Kinhal, director of literacy, presented the district’s new goals to measure progress on the district’s five-year strategic plan. This article takes a closer look at three of the goals as they relate to reading achievement: increase the percentage of students who meet college ready benchmarks, increase the percentage of students who meet standards on the Illinois Assessment of Readiness (IAR) and increase the percentage students who meet annual growth targets set by the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) for the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test.  

An analysis published in the RoundTable on Dec. 8 reported that the district had dramatically lowered the benchmarks for college readiness in reading from the 60th percentile to the 45th percentile. The analysis examined the extent of the drop from a number of different vantage points. The RoundTable reported on the district’s other goals in articles posted on Nov. 12 and Dec. 20.

Superintendent Devon Horton has maintained publicly, as well as in a meeting held with RoundTable reporters on Dec. 21, that the district’s goal to increase the percentage of students who meet standards on the Illinois Assessment of Readiness (IAR) is a rigorous goal and that the district is maintaining high expectations of students through that goal.

These goals – college readiness and meeting standards on the IAR – are two distinct and independent goals to measure whether the programs implemented as part of the district’s five-year strategic plan are in fact successful. And for its college readiness goal, the district has significantly lowered the bar for what constitutes success and what constitutes college readiness. Significantly, the district may claim success if students meet its lowered benchmark for college readiness in reading. And the district may claim students are on track to college readiness – even if the same students fall far short of meeting standards on the IAR.  

A third goal is to increase the percentage of students meeting their annual growth targets on the MAP test that are identified by the NWEA, the owner of the MAP test. This goal may be met if students keep pace with their peers, and it does not require accelerated growth. And if teachers set growth targets higher than those identified by NWEA, it is unclear what achievement level teachers should aim for: should they push their students to meet the district’s lowered benchmark for its college readiness goal or to meet ISBE’s benchmark to meet standards on the IAR?

At the same Dec. 21 meeting with RoundTable reporters, Horton and other administrators described three programs that the district is using in an effort to increase student achievement: reality checks, collaborative calibration visits and learning walks.

Five-year goals

At the Jan. 17 policy committee meeting, Kinhal presented a memo containing a chart that summarizes District 65’s new five-year goals to measure success under its new five-year strategic plan. A copy of the chart is reprinted below.

Kinhal’s memo states in full about these goals, “It is important to note that the SAT College Readiness Benchmark (CRB) has been selected to align with the State of Illinois use of the SAT in high school. The SAT CRB benchmark is defined by NWEA and this is a lower threshold than the ACT CRB benchmark (also defined by NWEA). To balance this measure, District 65 has included the % of students meeting or exceeding on the IAR assessment which based on a linking study completed by NWEA is a higher threshold than the ACT college readiness benchmark and is one of the most rigorous proficiency expectations across all state proficiency assessments.”

The college readiness goal

Almost six years ago, in August 2016, the District 65 School Board decided to measure whether students were on track to college readiness by using scores on the MAP test that were aligned to ACT’s college readiness benchmarks. NWEA identified the MAP scores that align to the ACT’s college readiness benchmarks through a linking study. The benchmark scores for reading corresponded to the 60th national percentile and predict that a student will do B level work in freshman year of college.

In its new five-year goals, District 65 has decided to shift to using scores on the MAP test that are aligned to the SAT’s college readiness benchmarks. NWEA identified the MAP scores that align to the SAT’s college readiness benchmarks through a linking study. The benchmark scores for reading correspond to the 45th percentile and they predict a student will do C level work in freshman year of college.

It is undisputed that this change lowers the benchmark for college readiness. For example, the MAP score previously used to meet college readiness in reading at eighth grade was 227. Now the MAP score will be 220.

While this difference may not seem like a lot, it lowers the benchmark from the 60th percentile to the 45th percentile. And the difference represents an estimated 1.6 years of academic growth, according to the RoundTable’s Dec. 8 analysis.

The analysis examined the drop in the benchmark from a number of vantage points. For example, a joint study between Districts 65 and 202 determined that an eighth grader needed to score a 227 on the MAP test in reading to be regarded as proficient in reading when entering ETHS. The new benchmark for college readiness, though, is set at a MAP score of 220, which is an estimated 1.6 grade levels below a score of 227.

In addition, the district’s new benchmark predicts that a student will do C level work in freshman year of college, rather than B level work. A grade of C in college puts a student in the bottom quartile. Students who do C level work in freshman year are less likely to graduate from college.

At the Dec. 21 meeting between RoundTable reporters and top administrators at District 65, the RoundTable asked why the district had reduced its college-readiness benchmark for reading at eighth grade to a score that was significantly below the score necessary to be regarded as proficient in reading when entering high school. The RoundTable also asked why the district would align its benchmark for college-readiness in reading to doing C level work in college when a grade of C in college is in the bottom quartile, and when a grade point average of 2.0 is the borderline between passing and failing in most colleges.

Stacy Beardsley, assistant superintendent of District 65 Curriculum & Instruction, said the state shifted from the ACT to the SAT as the required test for high school juniors in 2017, and that NWEA determined in a linking study what MAP scores were aligned to the SAT’s college-readiness benchmark. She added, “As a result, we want to be in alignment with the state test. So, we’ve done that.”

While ISBE shifted to using the SAT as its mandated test in high school, it did not adopt the SAT’s benchmarks for college-readiness. Instead, ISBE has defined four performance categories for the SAT test, and it identified scores on the SAT test for each performance category. According to ISBE’s website, a student must obtain a score of 530 or above on the SAT to “meet standards.”  ISBE says a student who “meets” a score of 530 on the SAT has “met the proficiency level and demonstrated adequate understanding of the knowledge and skills needed relative to the Illinois Learning Standards.”

ISBE adds, “The IL SAT performance levels align to the Illinois Learning Standards, which set rigorous expectations of mastery of the Illinois standards to demonstrate college and career readiness. They were designed to reduce the likelihood that students would need remedial coursework upon entering college.”

ISBE thus makes clear that the SAT score it is using to demonstrate college and career readiness is higher than the score that SAT has selected to indicate college readiness in reading. ISBE’s score is 530 on the SAT test, which corresponds to the 60th percentile. SAT’s score is 480, which corresponds to the 41st percentile, according to the SAT.

At the Dec. 21 meeting, the RoundTable asked the administrators, “Why don’t you raise [the benchmark] back up to 227,” its former level?

Horton and the other administrators said they would not do so. Horton said, though, that the district would publish the percentage of students who met the district’s former benchmarks for college-readiness, but “We won’t change goals.”

The goal to meet standards on IAR

As previously noted, Kinhal’s memo says to “balance” the goal to meet college readiness using SAT’s college readiness benchmarks, the district has adopted a goal to meet standards on the IAR, which she said, “is one of the most rigorous proficiency expectations across all state proficiency assessments.”

At the Dec. 21 meeting with the RoundTable, Horton referred to the district’s goal to increase the percentage of students who meet standards on the IAR. He said the benchmark to meet standards on the IAR is the highest in the nation, and that it is set at a higher level than the MAP scores aligned to the SAT’s college readiness benchmarks and higher than the MAP scores aligned to the ACT’s college readiness benchmarks.   

Simone Griffin, the district’s Director of Research and Accountability, said at that meeting that ISBE says that students who meet standards on the IAR are likely to be on track to college-readiness. She added, “Readiness for college is determined by the Illinois State Board of Education with the Illinois Assessment of Readiness” and that “meet standards on the IAR specifically correlates to college readiness.” She added that the benchmark to meet standards on the IAR is set at the “highest level across the country.”

Thus, administrators say they are maintaining high standards for students through the goal to meet standards on the IAR.

Yet the district has a separate, independent goal to meet college readiness benchmarks, and it uses MAP scores aligned with the SAT’s college readiness benchmarks to measure whether students are on track to college readiness. The benchmarks the district has chosen to measure college readiness in reading are an estimated 1.6 years of growth below the benchmark previously used by the district, and an estimated 2.5 years of growth below the benchmark score used by ISBE to determine whether students meet standards on the IAR, according to the analysis.

The college-readiness goal is an important goal being used by District 65 to measure whether the initiatives it is implementing under its five-year strategic plan are successful and whether it is preparing students for college and careers. It has significantly lowered the benchmarks to measure whether students are on track to college readiness.

Meeting NWEA growth targets

One of the district’s goals is to increase the percentage of students who meet their growth targets set by NWEA.

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. This means keeping pace with one’s academic peers, staying at about the same spot on the distribution scale. Making expected gains does not mean making accelerated growth, i.e., increasing academic and critical thinking skills necessary to move up from, for example, the 40th percentile to the 60th percentile.

District 65 administrators have said they recognize that just meeting NWEA’s growth targets will not lead to accelerating their growth, and they have said teachers are working with students and families to set annual growth targets for individual students that are higher than those provided by NWEA.

At the Dec. 21 meeting, the RoundTable asked which of the district’s goals teachers would use to set annual growth targets for individual students. Would they use the annual growth targets provided by NWEA? And if they decided to set higher growth targets for students, are they aiming to get students to a point where they meet the district’s new benchmark for college readiness? Or are they aiming to get students to the point where they meet standards on the IAR?

LaTarsha Green, District 65 deputy superintendent, said, “We look at a multitude of those goals and try to triangulate as best as possible. NWEA is powerful in that it is an adaptive assessment that kind of takes where kids are, sets some objectives and some goals for them, based on [the average growth] of students at that same age around the country in that same grade. So, it’s helpful for an instructor to kind of customize learning from an assessment result. That’s what my experience with NWEA was always useful for.

“IAR is not a [test] that really allows me to determine grade-level proficiency for students because, as we know, students come in with a multitude of needs and ranges of experience. But our educators work really hard to try to differentiate that experience and may need multiple resources to kind of accomplish that.

“I would just say, and I’ll admit, after working on the strategic plan that one of the things that we’re trying to strengthen is giving our schools a real clear focus on what goals to aspire to, because right now, they use a multitude,” Green continued. “They look at IAR to see grade-level tier-one, again, on tier-one instruction and look at NWEA to help define and guide some of the differentiated and intervention support and growth goals for students. Then you get classroom assessments, then unit assessments to determine the effectiveness of instruction that they provided.  And so, I think that’s an area of growth for us.

“For goal setting, I would argue that most teachers have probably been trained to look at the NWEA and their proficiency tests given three times a year, and they’re able to determine how students are growing as a result of instruction. When that summative assessment is given, I would say some of the IAR benchmarks are a really good indication of how they are performing according to grade level standard mastery.

Griffin said, “The focus is the growth of students, because students come in at different places. Every kid has a different growth goal based on where they are. So, the only way that we’re going to accelerate learning for students, especially students that are below grade level, is not just meeting that growth goal of one year, we need to have 1.5 or two years. So, educators are looking at, you know, what is the MAP projected growth goal. So, a student should grow this much from fall to spring. They’re looking at going past that, to make sure that we’re accelerating learning for students, for all our students, but really especially for our students that are below grade level, because if we just keep growing one year, they’re going to be behind where we want them to be. So our focus is really that accelerated learning. So MAP gives us that floor of what it means to grow one year, but we want to go higher than that to make sure that our students are catching up and that they can like access grade level text.”

The RoundTable asked if teachers are going to set a growth goal for individual students that is higher than NWEA’s annual growth target, and if so, are they aiming to get a student to perform at the district’s college readiness goal or the district’s goal to meet standards on the IAR?

Horton responded, “What’s critical is that, of course, you know, each student is unique. So, they’re looking at their individual data. So, it’s not necessarily every student that they’re looking to get into the CRB [college readiness benchmark] goal that we’ve set. It has to be realistic.” He added, “MAP provides these reports, and they talk about what’s realistic for this student in this next cycle, in this next 12 weeks of learning. And so, teachers typically kind of balance that, and, of course, if they can push it, they do. And they don’t necessarily say, ‘Here’s where we have to get a student who was at the bottom.’ It’s about moving and progressing.

“So, this is why, while looking at growth goals can be concerning on the lower end, we also want to see that students are learning and mastering or achieving at a nationally normed expectation for this certain window of time. So, I think it’s probably, it’s looking at individual students like that.

When asked how often goals are set for individual students that are higher than the NWEA’s annual growth targets, Horton said, “I can’t speak to the number, but I’m sure it’s pretty, pretty high, because we have some really high-performing students, and we still see growth in that arm of students as well. So, the teachers that are working with those students are setting marks that continue to move them. … Those teachers are challenged to set goals that will allow those students on the higher end to continue left to be lifted.”

On Dec. 9, the RoundTable filed a freedom of information request asking District 65 to produce all records that request, suggest or advise teachers and/or school teams to confer with students and families to set growth targets for students that are higher than NWEA’s growth targets; and all records that advise, or inform teachers and/or school teams how to set more aggressive growth targets than those provided by NWEA.

On Dec. 16, District 65 responded, “An initial search did not result in any records responsive to your request.”

Programs to improve achievement

At the Dec. 21 meeting, district administrators summarized three programs they are using to improve instruction and student achievement in the schools: the reality checks, the Collaborative Calibration Visits and the learning walks.

The reality checks

Griffin, the district research and accountability director, said the district conducts “reality checks” after the MAP tests are administered in the fall, winter and spring. The administrators bring the school leader teams together and discuss the data. She said the goal is to look at all the standards in reading and math, at where students may have fallen and at root causes why some students fell in those areas, and then determine what next steps to take.

“It gives the school teams an opportunity, despite the busyness of the work of leading those schools, to pause and come together with other members of our cabinet to say, ‘Hey, here’s how kids are performing,’ not just on MAP, but across all standards in the curriculum, across IAR, across any type of assessment or progress monitoring methods that they’re doing inside their classrooms, that they are discussing in their professional learning communities or their school improvement teams to say, comprehensively, we have all these pieces of data  around how our kids are doing in grades K through five and six through 8, and then here are our plans. … And based upon what we see, what should we be doing in terms of differentiated instruction and supports for the students to ensure that they make dramatic growth over the course of our next few months before we test again.”

 Griffin added that they do not just look at assessments, but they also look at the learning conditions in the schools, they look at cultural and climate, they look at disciplinary referrals. She added, “We look at measures on how to elevate our educators how we support them, … and how do we support school teams to move students?”

Horton said, “We have that with every single school three times a year. … We have these really rich discussions.” He said after having these discussions at the central office, the principals and the associate principals “go back to their buildings, then many of them do these mini-reality checks at their school. And that’s probably where you will get the more concrete steps around how to set the goals and how to leverage and how to move with the schools and the leaders.”

Horton added that they talk about the type of professional development that may be needed. Griffin added that the central office helps school teams provide the supports they need to reach their goals.

Collaborative calibration visits

Horton said administrators have adopted six instructional systems across the district, and they do a reality check concerning those systems called collaborative calibration visits.

Green said the six systems are 1) curriculum and instruction, 2) implementation of standards and effective use of data, 3) deeper planning and collaboration, 4) academic work and progress monitoring, 5) academic work and behavioral support, and 6) instructional coaching and feedback.

Green said, “We consider those six systems somewhat of a blueprint, kind of a guide on what are the six areas of focus for school improvement.” She said the school leaders do a self-assessment at both the beginning of the year and at the end of the year. So, the collaborative calibration visits are somewhat of a progress monitoring “for us to go in and look at their implementation.

“The cool thing about it is, most schools are doing this collaboratively with a group of teacher leaders, and really accurately kind of examining where they are in the implementation. They have some empowerment, an autonomy, to kind of design learning experiences or certain systems in their schools with that as a guidepost. So, we go in to make sure that we’re calibrating with those efforts.

“We also try to share the good news about what practices and templates or resources they’re using.”  Green added.  

The learning walks

Beardsley said that the Curriculum & Instruction department is leading “what we call learning walks. …We are doing one of these learning walks in each of our 18 schools this year.”

Central administrators meet with a school leadership team before conducting a learning walk. School leaders identify a focus area they are working on taken from their school improvement plan. The central office’s curriculum and instruction team and the school’s leadership team plan how they are going to gather evidence during the learning walk that will enable them to dive into the focus area.

On a scheduled day, the team members spend about four hours going into the classrooms and observing, they learn about the work going on in the school, and think about the student populations and programs in school. “We come back, and we use the last hour and a half of the day to essentially collectively process the evidence that we’ve collected, aligned to the school focus area, and look for patterns and then analyze the patterns. … And then from there, we turn to a prediction to say, ‘Based on the teaching and learning that we saw in the building today, what is it that ultimately students will know and be able to do as a result of this type of instruction?’

“The school takes that information and all the evidence from the learning walk back to their school improvement team and says, ‘This is kind of a temperature check of our work. This is what we’re seeing. How does this inform our ongoing professional learning?’”

Beardsley added, “A number of schools are using this as a launching place to say, now how do we continue these learning walks within our building. And it’s really powerful because it’s giving educators opportunities to be in other educator’s classrooms, around a shared interest.”

Beardsley said the Curriculum & Instruction department uses the information gathered at the schools to determine how to improve the curriculum and how to improve the professional development program for the next year.

Horton said, “We have had to build these things in order to really make this work stick and to be able to elevate it. And it’s been a journey for us.” He added that they are doing this work in collaboration with the District Educators Council (the teachers union), and “We’re working to build an extremely collaborative structure.”

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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