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ENSURING EQUITY IN ESSA: More than Half of U.S. States Risk Ignoring Academic Needs of Many Students, New Alliance for Excellent Education Report Finds

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“A high n-size could mean ‘no action’ for many students, especially students of color and students from low-income families who make up roughly half of all K–12 students yet graduate from high school at rates much lower than other students,” said Alliance President Bob Wise.

The academic needs of large numbers of African American and Latino students, students from low-income families, English language learners, students with disabilities, and other groups of traditionally underserved students in twenty-seven states and the District of Columbia could be ignored under a new proposal from the U.S. Department of Education (ED), according to a new report by the Alliance for Excellent Education (the Alliance).

Under ED’s May 26 proposal, states are given wide discretion in how they decide what number of students in these categories, or “subgroups,” will trigger improvement actions for low academic performance. If this number, referred to as “n-size,” is set too high, schools are not required to provide the resources that these subgroups of traditionally underserved students need to succeed.

“A high n-size could mean ‘no action’ for many students, especially students of color and students from low-income families who make up roughly half of all K–12 students yet graduate from high school at rates much lower than other students,” said Alliance President Bob Wise. “A state with a high n-size will not notice when a particular group of students underperforms or fails to graduate from high school. As a result, no action will be taken and no resources will go to the school to help the students who are falling behind.”

For example, if a state sets its n-size at thirty and a school has twenty-nine African American students in a specific grade, that subgroup does not exist in the school’s accountability system. If the graduation rate for that group of African American students is significantly lower than that of the entire school, a glaring achievement gap exists without requirements for action.

The Alliance report, Ensuring Equity in ESSA: The Role of N-Size in Subgroup Accountability, recommends that states set their n-size at ten or fewer students, a number it says allows states to effectively identify and support underserved students while staying true to the civil rights imperative inherent within the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the nation’s new education law that replaced the No Child Left Behind Act.

Currently, however, only thirteen states set an n-size of ten or fewer students, the report finds. As shown in the graphic below, nine states and California’s nine CORE districts, which include the state’s largest school districts, set the n-size between eleven and twenty students. (For a larger version of the graphic, visit https://all4ed.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/N-SizePyramid_FINAL.png.)

Twenty-eight states and the District of Columbia set their n-size at twenty-one or more students. Of those twenty-eight states, eight set an n-size at forty or more students—three times higher than the recommendation made in the report.

Under proposed rules that ED released in late May, states would be permitted to set any n-size they want, but if it is larger than thirty, the state must include the number and percentage of schools that will not be held accountable for the performance of students in a particular subgroup.

State N-Size

“An n-size of thirty is too high,” said Wise. “The U.S. Department of Education should immediately reevaluate its proposal and consider setting an n-size no higher than ten—a number that would allow states to protect student privacy and also produce valid, reliable, and actionable information on student subgroup performance. Without such a change from the federal government, individual states should take it upon themselves to set their n-size at ten students or fewer as they consider changes to their accountability and improvement systems. Efforts to close achievement gaps must include lowering n-size.”

Ensuring Equity in ESSA outlines several positive examples where states lowered their n-size and were able to identify and support substantially more schools and students. For example:

  • California CORE districts use an n-size of twenty students—much lower than the state’s n-size of fifty—and were able to include an additional 150,000 students in their accountability and support systems.
  • When Virginia lowered its n-size by twenty, the number of schools responsible for the performance of African American students increased from roughly 350 to 450. Similarly, the number of schools accountable for the performance of Latino students increased from approximately 120 to 180 and for students with disabilities from 105 to nearly 400.
  • Several small, rural states have also taken steps to include more students. Wyoming has an n-size of six and Alaska lowered its n-size from twenty-six to five within the last two years.

Setting an n-size at ten or fewer students would ensure that states capture the greatest number of schools for reporting, accountability, and improvement purposes under ESSA. By including these schools in their accountability and improvement systems, the schools become eligible for school improvement funding and direct student services under the law.

Download Ensuring Equity in ESSA: The Role of N-Size in Subgroup Accountability at https://all4ed.org/reports-factsheets/n-size/.

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