Dozens of pages of standardized test data presented to the District 202 Board of Education this week re-enforced a painful academic reality.
Black and Hispanic students at Evanston Township High School remain behind their white peers, despite years of effort to close the gap.
Board member Leah Piekarz called the school report card numbers “pretty alarming,” and said a “sense of urgency” is needed to help students of color perform better.
Of course, there is more to academic achievement than what’s measured on a standardized test.
But, for better or for worse, that’s how students (and schools) are often evaluated.
ETHS is rated “commendable” on its state report card, the second-best of four possible categories. And ETHS students as a whole exceed the statewide average in basically all academic categories.
“But,” said Piekarz, “when you break it down by race, ethnicity, IEP [special education], and free and reduced-price lunch [family income],” the racial and financial differences become clear.
For example, in last year’s entire freshman class, according to the D202 Year in Review report, 89.1% of students were on track to graduate. That’s better than the statewide rate of 87.4%.
But while white students at ETHS scored notably better than the state average, Hispanic and Asian students and low-income students here scored below the state average for their groups.
Black students at ETHS, while they lagged white students in the on-track-for-graduation metric, performed slightly better than the statewide average for their racial group.
Board member Gretchen Livingston said one reason for the gap in high school may well be that the gap for students wasn’t resolved in elementary or middle school.
“What they’re coming in the door with is what they got from District 65,” she said.
Board vice-president Monique Parsons, who has been wrestling with the achievement gap since joining the board in 2015, said “our Black students are, for lack of a better word, and I hate using this word, but they are at the bottom, and they are being out-performed constantly.
“It’s not good,” Parsons said. “We’re always chasing this and trying to figure it out.”
There are a variety of socioeconomic reasons for the achievement gap, many of which are outside of the school system’s control.
But once inside the school, feeling comfortable and having a sense of fitting in are important for an adolescent.
ETHS data showed that 56% of students overall felt a “sense of belonging” at the high school. But by race, it was 62% white, and 49% black.
“We have a very large building,” noted board member Gretchen Livingston. “It’s very easy for students to get lost in the mix.”
Survey results on social/emotional well-being may be impacted by how students feel at the time of the survey, not necessarily how they feel all the time, according to administrators.
The “well-being” survey was given in cold, dark, depressing February.
Another survey, with somewhat differently worded questions the following month, found that 93% of all students felt that teachers make them feel welcome at ETHS. (A racial breakdown was not available for that survey).
But other areas show the gap as well.
For example, 92% of white and Asian students took at least one Advanced Placement class or other higher-level course last year. It was 70% for Hispanic/Latino students, and 50% for Black students.
“Evanston is one of the best districts for white students,” said Board President Pat Savage-Williams. It was true eight years ago and it’s true now.”
“There is a predictability of academic performance according to race,” Savage-Williams added. “This is the work we have to do.”
Livingston recalled that a dozen years ago, some white parents felt the ETHS curriculum was being watered down, to the detriment of their children.
But Livingston said that years of test scores and course offerings show that was not the case.
“Relax, white parents,” she said.
One bright note, according to Assistant Superintendent Pet Bavis: While Black and Hispanic students still generally score below white students on AP exams, the students of color are showing higher results than in previous years.
As for total ETHS enrollment, percentage of Black students this school year (24.1%) is lower than before the COVID-19 pandemic (25.9% in 2019-20). Hispanic/Latino has increased from 18.8% to 20.2%, and white has dropped from 45.8% to 44.4%
The biggest increase, comparing 2019-20 to 2023-24, is for students identifying as being “two or more” races … going from 3.4% to 6.4%, almost doubling, although the actual raw numbers are still fairly now.
Overall, the number of students at ETHS has remained fairly constant since before COVID, 3,693 in 2019-20 and 3,593 this year (down 2.7%).
Enrollment did go up in the intervening years, but Superintendent Marcus Campbell said that was an expected bump, and the latest total reflects what is generally normal.
“We are exactly where we are supposed to be,” Campell noted.
While ETHS is showing only a slight decline, its elementary/middle school feeder, District 65, has been on a downward enrollment trajectory for years, dropping 20% since 2018. One question for the future … will the D65 decrease ultimately ripple through the high school with fewer children enrolling? Stay tuned.
Of course, the key for educators is not simply to point out the numbers, but to come up with a way for all students to improve, while at the same time closing the racial achievement gap.
Superintendent Campbell said the administration has a number of plans that are being vetted.
“It’s not the same old stuff we’ve been doing,” Campbell said.
“We’ve got some stuff coming that’s pretty big.”