At Monday night’s school board meeting in Evanston Township School District 202, administrators offered updates on student reading and advanced-level course attendance. The COVID-19 pandemic has presented challenges for student learning, standardized test performance, and academic progress.
Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction Pete Bavis began both presentations by recalling that this year’s seniors at ETHS have had only one entirely normal pre-pandemic school year. and uninterrupted, when they were in the ninth grade. Students at all other grade levels spent their entire high school careers in a confusing and chaotic pandemic world, Bavis noted.
Overall, 792 students took an AP exam in the 2020-21 school year, down nearly 19% from the 972 who took it in 2018-19, the last unaffected school year. by COVID-19. The percentage of AP students scoring 3 or higher on an AP exam — the typical threshold for receiving college credit — rose from 81% in 2018-19 to 66% last year.
These numbers represent the lowest number of students taking AP exams since the 2011-12 school year and the lowest percentage of students scoring a 3 or better since 2015-16.
“What we have seen is a perfect storm”
AP tests and scores for black and Latino students at ETHS were the most affected. The number of black students who took an AP exam fell 39% from 2018-19 to 2020-21, and the number of black students scoring a 3 or higher on an AP exam fell 51% during the same period.
Meanwhile, 24% fewer Latino students took an AP exam last year compared to 2018-19, and the number of passing grades among Latino students fell by 43%. ETHS also saw declines in pass and test pass rates for white students (down 15% and 21%, respectively), but the declines were significantly smaller than those for black and Latino students.
“I don’t want to call this a crisis in the making, but I want to be very close to calling it a crisis in the making,” Bavis said at the Feb. 7 meeting. “What we’ve seen is a perfect storm of the COVID pandemic, a struggle with continuity over the school year, shifting assessment landscapes. For example, the SAT will move to a fully online version. We’ve seen AP exams given online, we’ve seen in-person exams, we’ve seen a combination.
Given all the barriers to learning that students, staff, and families have faced over the past two years, ETHS needed a hard reset this year to provide additional support for students and make up for lost learning time, according to Bavis. Given the demand for more structure and resources for students, teamASAP — a group of teachers dedicated to making AP classes accessible and manageable — hosted a number of online and in-person events this school year.
Among other programs aimed at helping students in the fall, teamASAP hosted its High School AP Fair in December, a Pathways to AP virtual forum, and a series of luncheons for students in AP courses to collaborate and discuss their classroom experiences and learning strategies. The group also created a new AP Black Affinity space for black students enrolled in AP classes to hear about their shared classroom experiences and voice any concerns or struggles in a safe environment.
In response to the AP report, board vice president Monique Parsons said the school board’s goal should be to “eliminate the predictability” of white students dominating the AP space while students from color, especially black students, struggle to access and succeed in these courses.
“We have so much work to do and I’m so proud of our students. I’m so proud, especially black students who are still struggling through this, no matter how hard it is to sit here and finish [an AP course] completely because I know the challenges,” Parsons said. “But I have a visual. You painted a visual for me tonight, and somehow the reset has to dig deep.
More than half of first-year students take a reading support course
Also at Monday’s meeting, ETHS Director of Academic Support Kiwana Brown provided board members with a report on the school’s literacy programs. Most notably, student enrollment in first- and second-grade reading courses designed to improve literacy skills has increased dramatically during the pandemic. This year, 55% of first-year ETHS students are taking a reading support course, up from 31% in the 2019-20 school year. Similarly, enrollment in the second year reading support course has increased from 27% of 10th year students in 2019-2020 to 51% this year.
Brown highlighted how donations funded last summer’s renovation of the ETHS Literacy Lab. The lab provides one-on-one support to approximately 50 students who need help with reading comprehension and literacy skills.
Additionally, ETHS runs the Summer Lift program, a 16-day intensive reading course for students in Districts 65 and 202. Last summer, 25 students participated in the program, improving their reading skills by 2.6 average levels in just 16 days of instruction, according to Brown.
“It all boils down to this: students who read at the grade level historically continue to do so, but we’ve observed that there’s a growing gap for students who strive to read,” Brown said. “What I plan to do with my team is to help close those gaps in any way I can.”
Later in the meeting, School Board Chair Pat Savage-Williams gave a brief update on the search for a new superintendent, noting that she understands some community members may be frustrated with the process is slow, but she said taking the time to find the right person for the job is important to the board. The district received more than 1,800 responses to its community survey designed to gather feedback on the research.
Additionally, several virtual meetings are scheduled over the next few weeks for students and community members to meet with representatives from the Alma Advisory Group, the research firm contracted by the council to assist in the process. Ultimately, Savage-Williams and other board members said they hoped a new superintendent would be hired and in place by June, if not sooner.
“We will gather all this information and meet to develop a profile [of an ideal candidate], and I look forward to that reunion,” Savage-Williams said. “We will then review that profile and determine what our next steps will be as a board.”