Federal

Ed. Dept. to Weigh NCLB Subgroup Issues

By Michelle R. Davis — June 20, 2006 4 min read
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The Department of Education plans to re-evaluate how many students’ test scores districts and schools will be permitted to exclude when determining whether they’ve met annual educational goals under the No Child Left Behind Act.

At a June 13 hearing before the House Education and the Workforce Committee, Deputy Secretary of Education Raymond J. Simon assured lawmakers that large numbers of students’ test scores were not going uncounted when it came to evaluating whether districts and schools were raising student achievement. But he also said the Education Department would hold a conference in the fall to determine whether states were excluding too many test scores to avoid sanctions under the federal law.

No Child Left Behind Subgroups

Under the No Child Left Behind Act, districts and schools must break down test scores by subgroups to determine whether all students are making adequate yearly progress.

Subgroup categories:

• Students from major racial and ethnic groups, typically, African-American, Hispanic, white non-Hispanic, American Indian/Native Alaskan, and Asian/Pacific Islander

• Economically disadvantaged students

• Students with disabilities

• Students with limited English proficiency

Districts and schools may choose not to count subgroups that are so small they are statistically unreliable for accountability purposes. Those numbers, known as “N-size,” differ by state, based on approval by the U.S. Department of Education, and range from 5 to 75.

SOURCE: Education Week

Under the NCLB law, which President Bush signed in January 2002, districts and schools must reach annual achievement goals not only overall, but also for specified subgroups of students, such as members of racial and ethnic minorities and students with disabilities.

Districts and schools are permitted to omit test scores from subgroups of students that are small enough that they would provide statistically unreliable information on a school’s performance or raise concerns about students’ privacy.

“We don’t want false positives and we don’t want false negatives,” Mr. Simon said after the hearing. “The better we can get at making the structure work correctly, then the more likely the children who need the services are going to get them.”

The minimum number below which districts and schools may exclude a given subgroup, known as the “N-size,” differs from state to state and must be approved by the federal Education Department. While districts and schools in Maryland may discount subgroups of five students or fewer, for example, West Virginia districts and schools may exclude subgroups of 50 or fewer. A larger N-size generally makes it easier for districts and schools to comply with the No Child Left Behind law.

‘Minimums’ Too Large?

An analysis released in April by the Associated Press found that the test scores of nearly 2 million U.S. students, mostly minorities, were not being counted for subgroup performance. The news service concluded that many schools were escaping accountability for the progress of racial and ethnic subgroups as a result of exclusion practices. (“Analysis Finds Minority NCLB Scores Widely Excluded,” April 26, 2006.)

If schools receiving federal Title I aid for disadvantaged students fail to make adequate yearly progress, or AYP, for two years in a row, they must provide students with an option to transfer to a better-performing public school, and after three years, they must also provide free tutoring to students.

Both Republican and Democratic members of the education committee expressed worries at last week’s hearing.

“I am concerned that states are being allowed to establish minimum subgroup sizes that are too large and are thereby failing to disaggregate data for far too many students,” said Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., the chairman of the House education committee. “This certainly was not the intent of Congress when we passed No Child Left Behind in 2001.”

Rep. George Miller of California, the panel’s ranking Democrat, said it was “troubling to learn that some states appear to be circumventing the primary goal of the law and exploiting a legal loophole in order to exclude from accountability measures the scores of children from racial and ethnic minority groups and those with disabilities.”

John C. Brittain, the chief counsel of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a watchdog group based in Washington, told the House panel that the debate over N-sizes, at its core, was a civil rights issue.

Schools that are not identified as needing improvement under the law because they do not have to take into account some small subgroups, he pointed out, don’t have to provide extra help, such as tutoring, to students.

“When students’ scores don’t count and their schools continue to make annual progress, students are denied statutory rights and benefits under NCLB,” he said.

Committee members peppered Deputy Secretary Simon with questions about what the Education Department was doing to address the issue. He stressed that although a subgroup’s size may have been too small to count toward a school’s performance for AYP purposes, those same students are often measured as members of other subgroups or, at least, in the district’s overall numbers.

“Thus, the law, with built-in redundancies partnering with creative teachers,” he said, “enables us to get as close to 100 percent accountability as we possibly can.”

A Closer Look

In a June 13 letter to Rep. McKeon and other members of the House education panel, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings said she intended to take a close look at N-sizes and would schedule the fall conference to “help states improve their systems for ensuring the validity and reliability of their accountability decisions.”

“We will work with states to acquire new impact data on school and student inclusion rates and discuss with them a process for justifying how their specific N-size is necessary for valid and reliable results,” she wrote.

Reginald M. Felton, the director of federal relations for the Alexandria, Va.-based National School Boards Association, said in an interview he welcomed the scrutiny and believes that federal officials will find states’ N-size limits are, for the most part, appropriate.

“We still hold firm that their purpose is to deal with statistical relevance and validity, and they do that,” he said of the minimum sizes. “The debate needs to shift to what is being done to ensure that students identified as in need of improvement get the help they need.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 21, 2006 edition of Education Week as Ed. Dept. to Weigh NCLB Subgroup Issues

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