Nine years ago, in January 2014, the school boards of Districts 65 and 202 adopted a Joint Literacy Goal that stated: “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.”

Since that time the districts have traditionally prepared a joint report to evaluate how they were doing in making progress toward meeting that goal, and they presented their joint report at a joint meeting of the school boards.

That tradition was broken on Feb. 21 when each district presented its own separate literacy report. Neither report even mentioned the joint literacy goal, although the subject came up during the boards’ discussion. As reported in the RoundTable, the districts may be moving away from the joint goal.

In the written report prepared for District 65, Assistant Superintendent Stacy Beardsley presented a graphic showing the district’s new five-year goals. The graphic is reprinted below. In her report, she acknowledged that the district is using “a lower threshold” (i.e., a lower benchmark) than the district previously used to measure whether students are on track to college readiness in reading.

Beardsley, however, did not quantify the magnitude of the drop. An analysis published by the RoundTable estimates the drop is significant.

District 65’s new threshold for college readiness is also much lower than the threshold that administrators of Districts 65 and 202 jointly decided to use to measure whether students were proficient readers when they entered Evanston Township High School.

Both District 65 Superintendent Devon Horton and Beardsley defended lowering the benchmark for college readiness in reading, stating that another of the goals is to increase the percentage of students meeting standards on the Illinois Assessment of Readiness (IAR), which, they said, is a more rigorous standard.

Beardsley also presented achievement data in reading and  summarized the programs the district is working on to improve student achievement in literacy.  

The above graphic, prepared by School District 65, shows the district’s new five-year goals in reading.

Joint literacy goal

In February 2019, administrators of Districts 65 and 202 presented the results of a joint study to the school boards on how to define “proficiency” and to measure progress in meeting the districts’ joint literacy goal consistently across the K-12 span. This presented a challenge, because at that time ETHS was using the STAR test, and District 65 was using the MAP test.

As part of its assessment of freshmen entering ETHS, high school administrators determined that an incoming ninth grader needed to achieve at least a grade equivalent (GE) score of 8.3 on the STAR test in order to be viewed as reading proficiently. A GE score of 8.3 means a student is reading at the level of a “typical” student in the third month of eighth grade, according to information provided by STAR.

As part of the study, administrators of Districts 65 and 202 determined that a GE score of 8.3 on the STAR test given to incoming freshmen at ETHS equated to a score of 227 on the MAP test given in the spring of eighth grade.  

So administrators jointly concluded that an eighth grader at District 65 should obtain a score of at least 227 on the spring MAP test to be regarded as proficient in reading when entering ninth grade at ETHS. Administrators confirmed this finding in 2020 and 2021.

Yet District 65 administrators recently decided to use a MAP score of 220 to indicate college readiness in reading at eighth grade, which is far below the score of 227 needed to indicate high school readiness. While the difference in scores may not seem like a lot, the RoundTable analysis estimates that the difference represents an estimated 1.6 years of annual growth.

College readiness goal for reading

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. The Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA, the owner of the MAP test) 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, rather than to the ACT’s college readiness benchmarks. NWEA identified the MAP scores that align to the SAT’s college readiness benchmarks through a linking study. These new benchmark scores for reading correspond to the 45th percentile, and they predict a student will do C level work in freshman year college.

In her report to the District 65 School Board dated Feb. 22, Beardsley acknowledges that the change results in “a lower threshold than the ACT CRB benchmark,” but as noted, she did not quantify the magnitude of the change.

A RoundTable analysis examined the drop from a number of vantage points. As an example, the MAP score previously used to meet college readiness in reading at eighth grade was 227. Now the MAP score has been lowered to 220, an estimated 1.6 years of academic growth below the prior benchmark.

From another perspective, the new benchmark predicts that a student will do C level work in freshman year 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.

Lowering the reading benchmark

In her Feb. 21 report, Beardsley gives the reason for lowering the benchmark for college readiness: “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.”

While Illinois State Board of Education did shift to using the SAT as its mandated test in high school, it did not adopt the SAT’s benchmarks for college-readiness. Instead, according to ISBE’s website, a student must obtain a score of 540 or above on the SAT to “meet standards.”  ISBE says a student who “meets” a score of 540 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.”

Thus, ISBE is using an SAT score of 540 to demonstrate college readiness in reading, which corresponds to the 60th percentile, while District 65 is using an SAT score of 480, which corresponds to the 41st percentile, according to the SAT.

District 65 also defends lowering the benchmark for college readiness by saying it has adopted another goal “to balance this measure.” The other goal is to meet standards on the IAR. Beardsley says that the threshold to meet standards on the IAR is higher than both the threshold to meet SAT’s benchmark for college readiness and the benchmark to meet the ACT’s benchmark for college readiness and that the threshold to meet standards on the IAR is “one of the most rigorous proficiency expectations across the all state proficiency assessments.”

Devon Horton, superintendent of District 65, similarly said at the joint board meeting, “We set goals in our district that are actually more rigorous than what we’ve had in the past by using IAR,” which he said has “the highest set of standards in K through eight across the country.” He added that while “there’s a continuous discussion around should we have ACT’s or SAT’s college readiness benchmark, or IAR, we look at all three.”

ISBE says that students who meet standards on the IAR “have demonstrated readiness for the next grade level/course, and, ultimately, are likely on track for college and careers.” In pre-pandemic years, about 40% of the students in the state met standards in reading on the IAR, meaning that the benchmark to meet standards corresponds to about the 60th Illinois percentile.

Pete Bavis, District 202 assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, said he applauded District 65’s use of the IAR “because that complements the high bar that is being set for the high school at 540 [on the SAT],” he said.

Even though District 65 has a goal to meet standards on the IAR, it is unclear how having that goal justifies significantly lowering the benchmarks used for a separate college readiness goal. The district could have adopted a goal to meet standards on the IAR and adopted a separate goal to meet college readiness using the same benchmarks  used by the district since 2016.

Or the district could have adopted a goal to meet standards on the IAR and used that as its college readiness goal (as does ISBE), and not adopted another separate “college readiness” goal with much lower benchmarks. This would have provided a clear, consistent message for district administrators, school leaders, teachers, students and parents about expectations for student achievement.

In a December meeting, the RoundTable asked District 65 administrators why not raise the college readiness benchmarks up to where they were before. District 65 administrators said they would not do so. Horton did say they could report test results using both the SAT and ACT college readiness benchmarks, but they would not change the goal.  

District 65 has not claimed that lowering the benchmark for college readiness in reading helps students.

Reading achievement

The district retroactively applied its new college readiness benchmarks in reading to the prior four years of student test results on the MAP test, and found that the percentage of students meeting the district’s new benchmarks “has been flat over time.” The percentages ranged between 73% and 75%.

The percentages of students meeting standards on the IAR are much lower and showed a slight decline over the same four years. In 2019, Beardsley said, 43.8% of District 65 students met or exceeded standards on the IAR.  In 2022, 40.5 % met the mark.

The chart below shows the percentage of students by subgroup who met or exceeded standards in reading on the IAR in 2019, 2021 and 2022. (The IAR was not given in 2020.) The chart shows that between the 2019 IAR test (which was pre-pandemic) and the 2021 IAR test, students in every subgroup lost ground, but all subgroups rebounded in 2022. Yet each subgroup was still a little lower in 2022 than in 2019, except students with an IEP or individualized education program.

In pre-pandemic years, approximately 40% of Illinois students met standards in reading on the Illinois Assessment of Readiness test. Thus the “meets standards” benchmark corresponds to the 60th Illinois percentile.

Beardsley noted that the district continues to have “an achievement or opportunity gap across racial and ethnic lines.” She added that the trend does “not put us on track to achieve these five-year goals.”

Improving literacy achievement

In order to meet the five-year goals, Beardsley said the district will need to do “deep work to drive improved performance.” She said the district is attempting to improve student achievement in literacy by strengthening teachers’ knowledge and instructional practices, improving the quality of instructional materials and developing programs both in and outside the school day to support access to literacy instruction and support.

Strengthening knowledge and instruction

At the joint meeting, Beardsley highlighted two programs designed to help teachers’ instructional practices. LETRS (Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling) is a two-year professional learning course focused on evidence-based literacy practices that is being offered  to teachers in grades K-3. This course focuses on teaching practices that will apply regardless of the instructional material the district selects, she said. Currently 56 teachers from three schools are taking the course. The district plans to offer the course to a second cohort of teachers next year.

The second program is Improving Reading for Older Students, which was created by Achieve the Core that is being offered to teachers in grades 4-8. “The course is specifically designed to provide educators with skills and practices that can support reading development for older students,” said Beardsley. A total of 56 educators from seven schools are taking the course.

The district is offering additional professional learning opportunities to teachers and staff. In one program, Foundation 65 is helping to increase the number of District 65 teachers who are endorsed reading teachers and reading specialists.

At one time the district had 44 reading specialists who provided supports for students. That number was reduced over time to about 20, and a few years ago the district eliminated the positions of all reading specialists and converted the positions to general interventionalists, who work with students to increase their skills.

Literacy instruction materials

The district is in the process of replacing Lucy Calkins’ Reading and Writing Units of Study, which is currently being used in kindergarten through fifth grade, and Calkins’ Phonics Units of Study, which is currently being used in kindergarten through second grades.

Beardsley’s report says there are significant gaps in the current literacy curriculum, including that “there is a need for stronger explicit, systematic and diagnostic foundational skills instruction embedded into the units of study,” and there is “an inconsistent use of complex texts at all grade levels, and an overemphasis on reading skills and strategies (materials do not systematically build knowledge for students).” She added that the District 65 team has worked to address these shortfalls without clear and consistent success.

As a result, Beardsley said, “It is imperative that the district engage in a curriculum selection process to select a high quality and equitable English Literacy and Language Arts curriculum in grades K-5 and plan for high quality professional learning to support teachers in making shifts that support equitable literacy instruction.”

The goals are to:

● Select curricular materials that support a clear and equitable vision of excellent literacy instruction aligned to the research base of Scarborough’s Reading Rope, with stakeholder participation in the process

● “Build a team of champions who can support communication and build investment district-wide

● “Develop an intentional adoption and implementation plan — including what it will take to use and support the materials well to set teachers up for success.”

Beardsley said, “The group that’s working on this is a group of 15 educators with a second team that is operating on an advisory basis. And these folks have been diving into the materials during the day and on weekends to really get a deep and comprehensive understanding in order to inform our selection.”

The plan is to adopt a new curriculum by the end of March, to plan for implementation in April and May, and to train instructional leaders and teachers on the new curriculum in June through August. While district officials told the RoundTable that some of the potential materials are being piloted in classrooms, a full scale pilot of the new materials will not be conducted in a school or schools before the selection. For a more detailed article on this initiative, click here.

Literacy supports

The third area of work, Beardsley said, is focused on the development of programs within and beyond the school day to support literacy development.

Beardsley said, “This includes work that is done by our academic interventionists who are currently working with 397 students across 17 schools, delivering small group and individual interventions.

“It also includes our Academic Skill Centers, which have served 1,200 students this year with 44 tutors, and our high dosage tutoring level. Our goal is to serve 2,000 students. Students engage in a nine-week tutoring session with at least three sessions per week and a small group format. The work is built on last year’s success where we saw 58% of our students meet their math tutoring stretch goal and 56% of the students meet their reading tutoring stretch goal. This was measured by the iReady assessment, which is core to our high dosage tutoring program.”

Last summer, the district provided summer learning opportunities for approximately 1,000 students, said Beardsley. Many of the summer programs are offered in partnership with other organizations, including the McGaw YMCA Summer Learning Program; the SummerLift program, provided in partnership with District 202; and the Summer Reading Intensive, provided in partnership with Redwood Literacy.

Board comments

District 65 Board member Soo La Kim, said, “I’m really excited about both the LETRS   training and the new literacy curriculum that we’ll have. I think those are critical. All the other stuff that’s happening outside the classroom – the academic skill center, summer lift – those are all really important supports. But what really we need to get right is what’s happening in the classroom with instructional practice and curriculum and the in class supports.”

She added that David Wartowski, District 65 Director of Math, had provided some information on math teachers who were able to increase student progress in math much more than other instructors, and that the District was looking to those instructors for best practices. She said she thought that those teachers “created classrooms that were nurturing and caring and where students felt seen.” She asked if the district could replicate that across other classrooms.

Beardsley responded that Wartowski is following through on this, and “then we’re going to look at the opportunities to kind of learn from that, and also identify instructors who can also help to support growth and development through their own promising practices and literacy and other areas.”  

District 65 Board member Joey Hailpern said, “My question is, ‘Where’s the urgency?’ … I get that we have to manage change, I get there was a pandemic, I get all of that. But our kids only get one school experience.”

Hailpern added, “I see a lot of attention on influencing teacher capacity, training people, that’s great. Getting a new curriculum, that’s great. That’s different than making sure and holding everybody accountable for using the curriculum, for making sure that there is alignment in the program vertically and horizontally and buildings and across the system that leads to this building. And it is critical that we do that and that we do it well.

“And so, I’ll come back to, where is the urgency? I think I would have written in the memo that we’re buying materials this spring. I would love to see how we’re not just getting the materials but putting them to use. What are the non-negotiables for educators in the classroom to use them? How are we taking away all the things we don’t want them to use anymore, and cleaning house and making sure that we only have the right things in front of children.”

Beardsley replied, “In regard to the [literacy] materials, the committee will be making a recommendation around the materials purchased, and in March, the beginning of April, there will be also essentially kind of a plan for professional learning as well as a plan for implementation and monitoring of the materials and the shift in instructional practices. …  And our job now is to ensure that the material selection is made thoughtfully and that we land with strong materials with a strong professional learning.”

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...

Join the Conversation


The RoundTable will try to post comments within a few hours, but there may be a longer delay at times. Comments containing mean-spirited, libelous or ad hominem attacks will not be posted. Your full name and email is required. We do not post anonymous comments. Your e-mail will not be posted.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Here’s a bit of context that helps us understand the challenges we face when we try to improve literacy (from a simple Google search):
    “About 130 million adults in the U.S. have low literacy skills according to a Gallup analysis of data from the U.S. Department of Education. This means more than half of Americans between the ages of 16 and 74 (54%) read below the equivalent of a sixth-grade level.Mar 16, 2022”

  2. The “Educational Merry-Go-Round” continues in D65.
    We change curriculum, AGAIN, and unfortunately, we’ll likely get the same results we got last time. It troubles me that the kids who are most impacted by this constant change are the kids who the board and the administration purportedly claim they are trying to help.
    My ONE suggestion is for the ENTIRE Board and Dr. Horton and Ms. Beardsley go spend ONE DAY with Traci Mull. Ms. Mull is an AMAZING teacher who gets results. Ms. Mull is LOVED by her students, current and former, and respected and appreciated by parents. Thank you.

  3. wow–just wow! Teachers are still using a curriculum that is proven to not align with the science of reading. Meanwhile, K-2 students are slipping through the cracks and still can not decode. For once I agree with Joey Halipern–“where is the urgency?” Who else on the board is pushing back on Horton and Beardsley to see the urgency? D65 is constantly making choices that only hurts every student’s literacy/math goals. District 202 now offers geometry as a summer session for incoming freshmen since D65 dropped advanced math from the middle schools in the name of equity, but yet 202 continually has private school kids taking geometry as 8th graders at the high school…how is that equitable to your public school kids D65?

  4. I think for a new curriculum to work there has to be more than two years of training. While that is good for current teachers, there is always turnover and you can’t count on classroom teachers to be training new staff; they are swamped with work as it is. I think some sort of training and refresher training for years to come should be built into the budget. Having taught for 15 years I witnessed what happened to programs; as soon as training dissipated the program became less and less relevant and new teachers were never given the proper training to use the curriculum to it’s full advantage.

    I like the comments I read in this article from the board members, it seems like a good plan if training can continue throughout the years, it would be money well spent.