Evanston Township’s racial achievement gap widens despite gains in elementary scores

Evanston Township High School has two fireplaces and several lush couches in its large marble lobby. It has eleven outdoor tennis courts, two swimming pools and a 15th-place ranking among Illinois public schools. But it also has a persistent achievement gap between white and black students that continues to widen despite efforts at the primary, elementary and secondary levels.

As the only Evanston high school and a separate entity from District 65, which encompasses the area’s k-8 schools, ETHS has become a melting pot of students of all races and economic backgrounds. The diverse student body, while celebrated at ETHS, also causes a number of social and academic disparities, feeding into a racial achievement gap that Associate Principal Marcus Campbell said is “virtually impossible” to close.

“People don’t like to talk about race, but these are racial disparities in achievement,” said Campbell, Associate Principal of Academic Affairs and Student Support at ETHS. “And No Child Left Behind made us focus on race. But in liberal communities like this, we don’t like talking about race. We’re all ‘very happy’.”

Though students of color are making gains in test scores at the elementary level, they still fall behind white kids as soon as they reach ETHS. Within their own groups, gains are increasing, but still minor when compared to the monumental gains being made by overachieving white students. 89.9 percent of white 11th graders met or exceeded expectations on the PSAE test in 2006. In 2012, there was about a four percent increase in meeting or exceeding expectations on the math portion of the test. Blacks however, only had a two percent increase in that time span, going from 36.2 to 38 percent.

For the reading part of the test, the percentage of black students meeting the passing score decreased, going from 35.4 to 28.4 percent. The amount of white students meeting the passing score increased again.

Some attribute the perceived lack of black achievement in high school to administrative failures, instructional attitudes or social stigmas, while others trace it back to inadequate elementary schooling, or even further to unsupportive home environments. While no one has a definitive answer, all parties accept the achievement gap as an ongoing problem, and continue to make efforts to close it. In the meantime, blame gets tossed from one party to another and the gap continues to widen.

Inadequate preparation is a constant struggle for elementary schools due to problems at home, said Churchill Daniels, Principal of Oakton Elementary School. An Evanston Community Foundation survey from 2012 showed that nearly 10 percent of Oakton parents did not send their children to any form of early education before kindergarten. Oakton has a transient population, Daniels said, which means they have to play “catch-up” with the kids who are behind.

“We always have goals we try to strive for whether the kids come in well prepared or not prepared at all,” said Churchill Daniels, principal of Oakton Elementary School. “70% of our kids are on free-reduced [lunch], but that’s not an excuse, we still have targets they need to hit. We are closing the gap.”

Leveling the playing field

In fall of 2011, ETHS made its first major move to close the gap by putting every freshman student, regardless of elementary performance, into the same honors-level classes. Now, students of all levels and races are taught at the same pace, and then separated into different tracks at the end of the year. Those who are reading below grade level are taught separately.

An analysis of state report cards from 2011-2012 shows little result for black students–just a decrease in Prairie State Achievement Test reading scores and a minor increase in math scores. More than anything, Campbell said, the policy ignited ‘mean and vicious’ feedback from white parents.

Jerry Specht, white father of three Evanston graduates and four-year treasurer of the Parent-Teacher-Association, said the change may have decreased the quality of the honors classes because instructors were unable to cater to diverse learning abilities.

“I wouldn’t say the inclusion of more students in the honors classes was an overwhelming success,” he said. “Differentiated instruction sounds nice in theory, but it’s very hard to do successfully. A good teacher can be successful in any environment. But for a lot of teachers, that’s pie in the sky. It’s not something that they can do for all of the students, or make it so everyone get something out of it.”

But Harriet Crosby, a black mother of a 2012 ETHS graduate, said the change had a positive effect on her son’s education. Trevor Crosby, who now attends Southwest Baptist University, had a partial learning disability and sometimes struggled to keep his grade point average over a 2.0. Even so, he was taking Advanced Placement classes by his senior year.

“They wanted to integrate students who were slower learners into honors classes, AP classes, and it gave them a chance,” she said. “There was a lot of negativity from parents who did not want their young adults interacting with kids that were not 4.0 students. There were some who threatened to send their kids to private schools. But actually it worked out good.”

AVID, a national program that began at ETHS in 1996, was one of the earlier initiatives the district took to encourage students to achieve, said Campbell. The program is designed to encourage students who test in the academic middle to take on a more rigorous course load. It involves tutoring, mentoring, and the facilitating the college admissions process. The program is 60 percent students of color, who Campbell said often struggle more with confidence issues than they do with the work itself.

“How do you get them to work hard and want the best, and how do we give them opportunities to demonstrate proficiency and still move them to higher level courses?,” he said. “It’s a struggle. It’s a struggle that involves race because most of those kids are kids of color…It’s not a question of intelligence and that’s something we’re trying to figure out.”

Self-segregation in social life, academics

The racial segregation between AP classes and regular classes is a commonly known fact at ETHS, said Carlos Taylor, a sophomore who identifies as bi-racial. He takes AP classes, but said other non-white students might be cautious about doing so because they feel more comfortable around minority peers.

“Some people don’t believe that they can do it,” he said. “Some kids feel like they’re not expected to. Based off of common stereotypes, you take certain classes. If people test high academically and go into the AP class but they feel alone, that might decentivize them to not take those classes… It’s more a psychological thing than an actual abilities thing.”

It’s the job of the instructors, Campbell said, to convince students of color that they can perform as well as any other student. In his mixed AP Literature class, Campbell said his black students told him he was being racist because it was too hard for them. Rather than change the material, Campbell convinced them they could do it. But some teachers do not follow the same philosophy, he said.

“To a certain extent, teachers really don’t see how they are supposed to move kids,” he said. “They say ’we don’t want to challenge the kids because they can’t do it.’ You get to the attitudes and beliefs around teachers- that’s why I say it’s an instructional issue…I believed in my heart that the kids could do the work, and I never compromised rigor. I taught to the top of the top. And they did it.”

But Crosby said she did not see that kind of encouragement with all of the faculty, especially those responsible for facilitating Trevor’s college applications.

“I really feel in all honesty parents have to step up to the plate and be an advocate if they want their child to get a college education,” said Crosby. “They gear African American young people toward vocational or community college or seeking employment. There’s no emphasis or encouragement to go onto college education… if I was not the type of parent who was very active and spoke up on his behalf, I don’t know.”

The Road to ETHS

Though the achievement gap is widening at the high school level, black student scores seem to be on the rise before that point, according to an analysis of scores from Oakton Elementary School and Chute Middle School. The percentage of students meeting or exceeding standard on the math portion of the Illinois State Assessment Test at Chute went from 62.4 percent to 75.6 percent in 2012?

For third graders at Oakton, the percent meeting or exceeding standards on the reading part of the test jumped from 41.4 percent in 2006 to 95 percent in 2012.

Oakton administrators attribute this to an equal-opportunity teaching philosophy and a variety of new academic support programs including extended school twice a week, Saturday school and ISAT tutoring opportunities, according to Jerry Success, Vice Principal of Oakton. He also said the first Wednesday of each month is only a half day of school because the other half is dedicated to teacher development.

The African Centered Curriculum, a special application-only program that caters to black students, was instituted in 2006 as a response to a trend of low performance among this group. Its effectiveness is evident in the 12 and 15 point increases in reading and math scores for black students in 2007, going from 41.4 to 53.5 percent in reading and from 65.5 to 81.4 percent in math. Oakton principal Churchill Daniels said he gives kids academic benchmarks to start from and new ones to hit in the winter and spring. He has also seen an increase in the number of black parents attending parent-teacher conferences.

“To speed it up, where it’s a sense of urgency… show the data, have community involvement, have a community discussion.”

But despite Oakton’s successes, Campbell said the high test scores are deceptive. He said the Illinois State Assessment Test, which is used to gauge progress from grades 3 to 8, is a very low measure compared to the more rigorous PSAE and ACT taken in high school. Hence, the learning students do in their early education does not necessarily prepare them for the challenges they face at ETHS.

Shawn Connelly, Psychologist at Chute Middle School, said students are dealing with a number of social and environmental issues that make it difficult for them to perform consistently well in school. Standardized testing, he said, is not the best way to gauge performance.

“Standardized testing is a one shot, one day deal,” he said. “You’re looking at how a kid did on a particular day. Those are not the most accurate reflections.”

Whatever the problem, be it flaws in testing or environmental factors, flaws in early education have a definite effect on performance in high school.

“It seems to me that a lot of the achievement level of a student is not completely under the school’s control by any means,” said Jerry Specht. “A lot of it has to do with what’s happened in their elementary education. You can’t take someone who’s had a bad experience in middle school and make them into a brilliant student… it’s hard for the schools to somehow compensate for that.”