Small schools may be exempt from accountability under ESSA plan

Editor’s Note: This is the latest installment in our series taking a closer look at Idaho’s effort to comply with the Every Student Succeeds Act.

Up to 16 percent of Idaho high schools may be exempt from certain accountability provisions of the Every Student Succeeds Act.

With just weeks remaining before a major federal deadline, state education officials are debating data reporting requirements that are likely to affect which schools get flagged for improvement — and become eligible for an increase in federal funding.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra and the State Department of Education staff have until Sept. 18 to submit Idaho’s plan for complying with ESSA, the replacement to No Child Left Behind.

Schools chief Sherri Ybarra

The state plan will outline Idaho’s education goals and strategies for spending and implementing about $83 million in federal funds annually. That plan must also include an accountability system, which is notable because Idaho has not had an accountability system in place during Ybarra’s administration.

The accountability system outlines what factors are used to determine school performance, and which criteria are used to identify the state’s lowest performing schools for comprehensive support and improvement.

That plan also outlines how to support low performing schools once they are identified.

But dig a little deeper, and size of student groups that state officials will establish for identifying the lowest performing schools starts to become important. The decision affects which schools are eligible for federal funding and which ones can be identified as low-performing schools and marked for comprehensive support and improvement for a three-year period.

In the state’s most recent draft of the ESSA plan, the minimum number of students in a group or subgroup (referred to officially as “n-size”) is 25 students. At the high school level, that means that any school with fewer than 25 students in a graduating class or in a specific grade level that takes state assessments will be exempt. Even though those schools will be exempt from federal identification and support, schools’ performance data, test scores, graduation rates and much more will still be publicly available.

Given Idaho is full of small, rural schools, student group sizes become important.

If the state sticks with a reporting size of 25 students, that means that 30 high schools — about 16 percent of affected Idaho high schools — would be excluded before the state begins to identify its lowest performing schools. While 16 percent of schools could be excluded, just 5 percent are going to be identified.

State officials don’t know which schools could be excluded — and don’t want to know. They don’t want to create rules based on where the line is drawn to decide whether or not Horseshoe Bend or Notus make the cut.

“The calculation is done without bias,” said Karlynn Laraway, the SDE’s assessment director. “Our data process is transparent in that way. We let the data speak for itself.”

Another consequence is those same small schools would not be eligible to receive an increase in federal funding that is supposed to go to the state’s lowest performing schools. State officials estimate schools identified as lowest-performing could spit a share of about $2 million.

Small schools wouldn’t be the only ones affected. Because 16 percent of schools could be exempt, it is possible that a larger school would be flagged as among the lowest performing 5 percent of schools, when in fact that school isn’t actually in the bottom 5 percent.

State Department of Education officials acknowledged these possibilities during a series of meetings last month and during an interview with Idaho Education News this week. For them, the debate over reporting requirements is a delicate issue that touches on fairness, validity and student privacy.

State leaders could set their reporting sizes between 10 and 30 students, but most of the debate is whether to set it at 20 or 25, SDE spokesman Jeff Church said. Lowering the reporting size below 25 could make more schools eligible, but it is only a matter of five or six schools.

On the one hand, a school with a very small group of 10th graders could see its average test score fluctuate dramatically based on just one or two students.

“If we had no n-size and the highest-performing student in a small population didn’t come (take the test), all of a sudden my average across all students is skewed by one student,” Laraway said.

On the other hand, selecting a larger student group size could result in schools that need extra help missing out.

“A larger n-size means some schools are left out of accountability altogether,” said Duncan Robb, the SDE’s chief policy officer, during a June 27 joint legislative meeting. “Schools wouldn’t be able to access the money if they didn’t have enough students to qualify for the accountability system.”

A recent report from the Brookings Institute highlights the issues involved with selecting sample size and data reporting requirements.

“…The potential benefits of transparency from disaggregation—and corresponding decreases in sample size—come with trade-offs: smaller samples have more statistical noise and, if sufficiently small, may raise privacy concerns,” the report reads.

State officials must settle on a student reporting size before submitting the final ESSA plan to the U.S. Department of Education on Sept. 18. SDE officials plan to bring the final plan to the State Board of Education for consideration Aug. 9-10.

Have your say

Anyone interested in accountability and the ESSA plan may review the latest draft of the plan online, and leave suggestions and comments through July 31.