The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) was a major piece of legislation passed with a bipartisan consensus and signed by President Obama on December 10th, 2015. The bill was intended as a replacement for the No Child Left Behind Act and made major changes to the way that states report their education plans to the federal government, how standardized tests are administered and reported, and gave a lot of power back to the states. So why is it now seeing major changes under Betsy DeVos and her new Department of Education? Ultimately it is an unsurprising move that is consistent with the Trump administration’s priorities of removing regulations that it views as harmful or overly restrictive. What we should be concerned with is how schools must now report data relevant to vulnerable school populations.
Broadly, the new guidelines for state education plans simply require less, but an interesting point of wonkish concern relates to how the states are now required to report their testing data. The ESSA requires states to test students less than No Child Left Behind, but standardized tests are still administered in critical subjects like math and reading, and the data is used much less punitively. Previously, when reporting testing data to the federal government, states were required to break out testing data for vulnerable student groups if their populations were over a certain size. “Vulnerable students” are groups such as English as a Second Language (ESL) learners or special education students.
The ESSA did not set a minimum size for these groups, but it did provide guidelines for the maximum size states could use, which was set to 30. This means that states could choose any n-size they wanted under 30, as long as they used valid statistical methodology to do so, and anything over 30 was considered invalid unless they could provide good reasoning for doing so.
To link this figure to actual implications, consider you are running a school. At your school, you have 25 ESL learners and you are not serving them well. Under previous guidelines, their testing data would likely be reported separately, allowing the federal government to act to protect and serve them better. Under the new guidelines, the state can set the observation/ N size to 30, 35, or 40, and their data stays hidden with the rest of the students. This matters for two reasons. First, vulnerable student populations can stay hidden under these guidelines as outlined in this report by the Office of Special Education, and even worse, they can simply be swept under the rug by irresponsible educators. Second, if a low performing group is being folded into the rest of the testing data, this can drag down overall numbers and cause a misinterpretation that a group that is being served well by the education system is not being served well at all.
Keeping this information in mind, what would be a good N-size to use that would provide the most accountability for state educators, while maintaining the privacy of students and their data? According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), a n-size of 10. In 2010, NCES released a report that details how states could easily report testing data with an n-size as low as 10 while still maintaining the privacy of the students involved.
No matter where you stand on education ideologically, you can agree that having more data is always a good thing. It keeps school districts and states accountable, it allows educators to better serve their student populations, and it protects groups that are typically swept under the rug. We already see this happening in states like Texas, where special education students were consistently not provided even the minimum educational benefit required by federal law. It is also worth noting that new ESSA state plans have begun to trickle in, and while some states are lowering the population sizes that they use for reporting data to 10, many are still maintaining high population sizes for accountability purposes. Anyone who is pro-accountability should find these new ESSA guidelines to be incredibly suspect and it is likely that we will see more vulnerable populations suffer before this misguided policy move comes under greater public scrutiny.