District 202 school board members bluntly asked Monday whether Evanston Township High School could realistically meet the federally-defined Adequate Yearly Progress with the Prairie State Achievement Exam quickly approaching in April.
The answer: Probably not.
"If you look at the amount of gain we’ve made each year for the last five years then statistically you would say we’re not going to make [AYP] [this] year," said Superintendent Eric Witherspoon. "We know that it is attainable, but we don’t know that it’s attainable in a matter of months with this year’s juniors. But we’re giving it every shot that we can think of. "
Because ETHS has failed to meet AYP five years in a row, the District 202 school board is forced to re-evaluate the structure of the school.
Another year of failing results will trigger penalties that could force the school to reopen as a public charter school, replace all or most of its staff, enter into a contract with a private management company, or implement another restructuring program with fundamental reforms.
Because of the federal No Child Left Behind legislation, 55 percent of ETHS students last year had to meet state standards on the PSAE, which is administered to juniors. In reading, only white students and students with disabilities made AYP. In math, white students made AYP, while black, Hispanic, disabled and economically disadvantaged students did not.
Next year, 62 percent of the students in each subgroup must meet the standards.
"What action can we take in working with our juniors? Have we looked at everything we could do to work with our juniors [i.e.] identifying where they are, identifying what it is they need, and making a concentrated effort?" said board member Mary Wilkerson.
"Is there anything else we can do with those juniors to make sure that more of them get there than not? Or are we doing all that we can? I’m assuming that we’re saying that we’re doing all that we can and even with that it’s going to take a miracle."
There is an exception, which is more realistic for ETHS but still a long shot, called "safe harbor." A school may still make AYP if each subgroup that fails to reach the target reduces its percentage of students not meeting the standards by 10 percent of the previous year’s percentage. Plus, the subgroup must meet graduation rate targets.
As an example, there are 258 black students at ETHS that are juniors this year, according to Judith Levinson, district director of research, evaluation and assessment.
To meet safe harbor, District 202 estimates that 40 percent of those black students, or 103 students, need to meet the reading standards on the PSAE. Using scores from a retired ACT that these students took, 48 to 62 students could meet the standards based on the ACT scores, which means that 41 to 55 more students need to meet the target.
Similarly in math, 42 percent or 108 black students need to meet the math standards on the PSAE. Again using ACT scores, there are 68 to 86 students who will probably meet the standards, leaving approximately 25 to 43 more students who would need to meet the targets for District 202 to make safe harbor.
This would be the case in every subgroup that didn’t have 62 percent of its population meeting the standards.
Board president Martha Burns said that she wants to see the district set goals for students of color and meet them.
"I need to say this because it’s stewing in me. When we talk about students of color over the years, it seems that it’s always with trepidation and vagueness," she said.
"It’s always maybe it will work, maybe it won’t work. I’m just trying to push us to believe in what we say that we believe in. If we believe that all students can learn, then we can begin to put some numbers when we talk about kids of color and not be afraid of the commitment in those numbers because we believe that we can achieve this."
Mr. Witherspoon said that the district is still working to meet AYP even if the odds are against them.
"Are we conceeding that we won’t make AYP? No we’re not. We will work with our students as vigorously as we can but knowing that it’s now November," Mr. Witherspoon said.
"If any school in the nation had figured it out and knew that there was something you could do from November to April to beat AYP with all your groups, my guess is it would have been packaged and all over the country now. There isn’t one answer. Does it mean we are any less vigorous in trying? Of course not."
In an effort to make AYP or safe harbor, ETHS has bolstered its support programs. Mr. Witherspoon said that the programs are hopefully the foundation for success this year but moreso for future successes.
Achievement Now has been created to increase reading ability and comprehension in all history, English and special education classes. The system of supports is now a mandatory part of the curriculum, where students who are getting D’s and F’s receive additional instruction outside of the classroom. Plus, a test prep course has been instituted to help identified students in test taking strategies as well as reviewing what’s on the test.
"This is not a quick fix. It’s not even a quick problem, it’s something that’s going to take a long time," said board member Omar Khuri.
"What I think you’ve hit on particularly with these programs is a fundamental change in the way we’re approaching the education of our children. And I believe you’re showing great leadership in education in the 21st century in putting a mandatory focus on literacy."
Mr. Witherspoon also said there has been a culture change in the school where teachers and administrators are working to build relationships with each student.
"We want every student at ETHS to know this: we care about you; we will not give up on you even if you’re trying to give up on yourself; and failure is just simply not a viable option at this high school," he said. "Your whole future rides on your learning and your educational attainment and we’re just not going to strive for anything less than your personal and academic success."