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What K-8 detracking looks like and why.  

We’re hearing so much about OPRF and de-tracking, asking what it is and what impact it might have on reducing the racial predictability of achievement.  We know our Districts are using Evanston as a model that included a curriculum overhaul in K-8 as well.  Surely, Evanston’s District 65 has always worked to raise all ships, but it was No Child Left Behind (NCLB) data requirements beginning in 2001 that shined the spotlight on a number of problems.  They convened their African American Student Achievement Committee in 2006 and have been implementing equity-based recommendations since then. 

We’re fortunate that Dr. Sean Reardon has turn a mountain of NCLB data into a relevant information that fits on a mole-hill size screen.  He is Project Director & Professor of Poverty and Inequality in Education, Stanford University and recently launched an interpretive tool called the “Opportunity Explorer”.  You can explore here.

The Opportunity Explorer was used to look at growth of black students and white students in River Forest, Oak Park and Evanston’s K-8 districts using data from 2009 – 2016.  The data have a built-in contrast.  Evanston’s D65 was implementing specific equity initiatives with the backing of a top-ranked education department from Northwestern University.  Districts 90 and 97 hadn’t yet doubled down on equity initiatives inside these results.  If equity initiatives were working we might see the advantages in D65 results.

The metric plotted for each district summarizes the trend in test scores.  “Tracking average test scores over time shows growth or decline in educational opportunity. These trends reflect shifts in school quality as well changes in family and community characteristics.”  The chart can be interpreted as having two scales.   The vertical describing black student growth and the horizontal white students.  For black students, a position above the horizontal middle line show improvements and scores below a decline.  For white students, a position right of vertical middle line show improvements and scores to the left a decline.  Look below or you can reproduce this chart by clicking HERE (best on a desktop).

Stanford Opportunity Explore growth of t

What can we learn?


River Forest – River Forest District 90 (#1) appears in the upper right quadrant.  As such, it shows a slight increase in white student achievement (~0.025) over this period and growth of black students at approximately 0.2 grade levels per year.  While the chart shows black students in 3rd – 8th grades outpacing white students, we must interpret this with caution.  The district is small, approximately 1,400 children and black students have accounted for roughly 7% of the student body.

Oak Park - The point for Oak Park’s D97 (#2) nearly overlaps the origin or right in the middle.  This middle position suggests equal growth.  There is no advantage or disadvantage for white or black students within this period. 

Evanston – The position of ETHS is left of center and nearly on the horizontal line (#3).  This position describes no growth in black student achievement over this period of time and perhaps only the slightest decline.  The left of center position shows achievement of white students declined in this period, perhaps losing as much as 0.1 grade per year.  

There are a few conclusions we can make from these data.  While laudable, the efforts of D65 to reduce the racial predictability of achievement are undetectable in these NCLB data.  Furthermore, there is evidence changes to curriculum and instruction may have reduced growth in white students.  It's unclear from these data alone whether growth was reduced in the same population of white students or, for example, the population may have changed to include fewer students contributing to higher growth estimates.  Closer to home we also see what we hope for, that the curriculum and instruction in D97 and D90 up until 2016 is growing black students and white students at similar and improving levels.

Some may be intimidated by the reduction of so much data to a position on a grid.  For those, the Illinois Board of Education Report Card for D65 is another source showing the achievement gap in D65 is as wide as ever in 2018.  A 52 point difference in math and 45 point different in ELA when summarized across 3rd through 8th grade.  As a cohort, black students meeting or exceeding state standards in math declined from 73% in 2015 to 52% in 2018.  Whites saw a decline from 70% to 62% over the same interval.

District 90 has already eliminated advanced math in Elementary, “walked away from differentiated instruction” through curriculum and instruction choices and adopted the Balanced Literacy approach to teaching youngsters to read.  D97 on the other hand just released their draft Access 4All equity plan.  Although draft, those in District 97 should know it looks very familiar to those in River Forest.


Someone described these curriculum changes in the name of equity as re-arranging the deck chairs on the titanic.  Dr. Reardon says we’re trying to solve a problem in school that wasn’t created there and points to early childhood and whole-community solutions.  With the experiment at Evanston in our rearview mirror we have a tremendous opportunity to go directly to the engine room, pull back the throttle and chart a new best course for students in these communities.

For a fantastic explanation of the achievement gap, and expert insights of its root cause with Evanston as the basis watch Dr. Reardon HERE.

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