In April 2021 the school board at Oak Park and River Forest High School adopted a formal policy aiming to reduce “any gaps in achievement by race, ethnicity, or income level that may manifest in any academic area evaluated by standardized tests use for college admission, such as but not limited to the SAT.”

The performance of OPRF students as detailed in the 2022 Illinois School Report Card and outlined by OPRF Superintendent Greg Johnson in his state of the district report at the Dec.15 school board meeting indicate that there remains a gaping achievement gap between the performance of white and Asian students and Black and, to a lesser degree, Hispanic students.

Last April OPRF juniors took the SAT as part of state mandated testing. In English Language Arts, as measured by the evidence-based reading and writing portion of the SAT, 74.6% of white OPRF students met or exceeded the state’s expectations compared to just 20.4% of Black students at OPRF.

The state groups students’ test results into four categories: exceeds expectations, meets expectations, approaches expectations and partially meets expectations, which is the lowest grouping.

In ELA 43.9% of Asian OPRF students scored in the highest category, exceeding expectations, compared to 36% of white students, 26.8% of mixed race students, 12.5% of Hispanic students and 5.4% of Black OPRF students.

Meanwhile, 38.6% of white students, 29.9% of mixed race students, 27.7% of Hispanic students, 24.4% of Asian students and 15% of Black students scored in the second highest category, meeting expectations. That resulted in 42.5% of Black OPRF students scoring in the lowest category, partially meeting expectations, in ELA compared to just 5% of white students, 11.3% of mixed race students, 12.2% of Asian students and 19.6% of Hispanic students.

The gaps were even wider in math. Asian students outperformed their classmates in math with 39% of Asian OPRF students exceeding expectations in math compared to 20% of mixed race students, 19.3% of white students, 7.1% of Hispanic students and just 1.8% of Black OPRF students.

Johnson said math was one area where Black OPRF students did better than last year. This year 16.4% of Black OPRF students met or exceeded expectations an increase of four percentage points over 2021 when 12% of Black OPRF juniors met or exceeded expectations. But the percentage of Black students in the lowest category of partially meeting expectations actually increased in 2022 to 65.2%, up from 60% in 2021. In 2021 3.2% of Black OPRF students exceeded expectations in math compared to just 1.6% this year.

Among other students, 75.6% of Asian OPRF students met or exceeded expectations in math compared to 67.3% of white students, 50% of mixed race students, 33.9% of Hispanic students and 16% of Black students.

Some school board members said they were disappointed with the continuing wide racial gaps in academics.

“I would like to see more progress,” said Sara Dixon Spivy.

Fred Arkin agreed. “It’s still troubling and progress has been very slow,” Arkin said.

Kebreab Henry also was troubled by the racial disparity in student performance. “It’s not the capacity, being able to learn, it’s other factors,” Henry said.

In an attempt to reduce the racial gaps OPRF has revised its freshman curriculum to eliminate College Prep level classes putting most freshmen in Honors level classes in English, science and history in an effort to expose more Black and Hispanic students to high level course work.

But Black students at OPRF remain overrepresented in the lower-level transitions classes designed for students who need extensive help. Black freshmen make up 49 of the 90 OPRF freshman enrolled in a transitions level English class this year and 45 of the 77 OPRF freshmen enrolled in a transitions level math class according to school data the Wednesday Journal obtained by making a public records request.

Low income students also struggled with the SAT with only 18.5% of low income, as measured by qualifying for a free or reduced lunch, OPRF students meeting or exceeding expectations in ELA and just 16.4% doing so in math.

Overall 57.6% of OPRF students met or exceeded expectations in ELA and 51.4% did so in math. Test scores remain below where they were in the pre-pandemic year of 2019 when 65.6% of OPRF students met or exceeded expectations in ELA and 58.5% did so in math.

“Overall student achievement is not where we want it to be,” Johnson said.

The district is in the process of revamping its math program.

“We’ve just begun to make those changes,” Johnson said.

OPRF’s performance was far better than the state average across all racial groups. Across the state only 29.9% of high school juniors met the proficiency standard in ELA and just 25.8% did so in math. At OPRF 20% of Black students were considered proficient in ELA compared to just 12.1% statewide and 16.2% of Black OPRF students were considered proficient in math compared to just 6.8% statewide.

For the first time since the Illinois State Board of Education began the classification,  OPRF was named an exemplary school meaning that it ranked in the top 10% of Illinois public high schools according to a metric that weighs eight factors. Graduation rate counts for half of the score that determines a school’s classification while math and ELA proficiency counts for 7.5% each. Last year OPRF had a graduation rate of 94% compared to the state average graduation rate of 87%.

Johnson noted that the state proficiency standards are tougher than the college ready standards developed by the College Board, the company that produces the SAT exam. Johnson also said there is no research backing up the state standards, but there is research backing up the College Board’s college ready standards.

According to the state of the district report that is posted on the OPRF web site 74% of OPRF juniors met the College Board’s college ready benchmarks.

Advanced Placement exam results were a bright spot for OPRF last year. Of 79% of AP exams taken by OPRF students last year students received a grade of three or better which is a higher percentage than three of the last four years. OPRF students also took more AP exams last year than they did in any of the past five years. The number of OPRF students taking AP classes and exams remained similar to the past several years.

But there are also racial disparities in AP results with Black and Hispanic students scoring worse than their white and Asian classmates.

“Racial disparities are seen in our Black and Hispanic students scoring three or better (approximately 12-17 percentage points different than our white population); however the gains for our varying groups of students is noticeable,” the state of the district report states.

Racial disparities are also evident in the freshman on track metric which measures the percentage of students who pass all their freshman classes. Last year, 94.3% of white OPRF freshmen passed all their classes compared to 78.8% of Black freshmen. The percentage of Hispanic freshmen on track rose 10 points last year to 91.8%. Overall 90.8% of OPRF freshman were on track to graduate last year.

Recognizing that disparities in student performance begin well before high school OPRF administrators and teachers have been meeting more frequently with their counterparts in their feeder districts, Oak Park District 97 and River Forest District 90, to better coordinate and align their efforts and curriculum.

“We think that’s a good thing,” said Laurie Fiorenza, the assistant superintendent for student learning at OPRF. “Everybody is at the table and doing the work.”

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