Ohio shouldn’t walk back new equity measures for students

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Ohio’s Every Student Succeeds Act plan doesn’t include many changes to the state’s current accountability system, but it does make some meaningful adjustments that improve equity within the state. Most notably, it lowers the minimum number for Ohio subgroup sizes, or n-size, from thirty to fifteen students for accountability purposes—a transition the state is implementing gradually and will complete in the 2018–19 school year. Unfortunately, legislation that recently passed the Senate, S.B. 216, would undo the n-size shift before it’s fully implemented. Here’s why that would be a mistake.

N-size and why it matters

Subgroups generally comprise historically disadvantaged populations like black and Latino children and English language learners (ELLs). Ohio’s previous n-size of thirty students meant, for example, that only schools with at least thirty ELLs had to report their performance as a subgroup for state report card purposes. Lowering this threshold to fifteen students is beneficial because it improves transparency and holds schools accountable for meeting the needs of underprivileged students, increasing the likelihood that students will receive the proper supports and interventions they need. Indeed, civil rights groups like Ohio’s Latino community, the NAACP, and disability rights organizations have long urged schools to focus on individual subgroup performance.[1]

Stakeholder engagement and data

The Ohio Department of Education (ODE) lowered the n-size requirement after engaging with stakeholders across the state in several ways. One was by hosting an n-size-specific webinar that more than 260 people attended. After presenting relevant data, ODE asked participants a couple of questions. The first was: “What is an acceptable percentage of students to exclude from subgroup calculations?” Fifty-eight percent of attendees thought it acceptable to exclude between 0 and 5 percent of students, whereas just 6 percent were comfortable excluding more than 25 percent of pupils. The second question asked participants to pick their preferred n-size, and gave them the options of ten, twenty, thirty, and “other.” Most respondents wanted an n-size lower than thirty, with 36 percent choosing twenty and 23 percent choosing ten, but a decent proportion, 37 percent, wanted to maintain Ohio’s n-size of thirty.

ODE also made n-size a discussion point during other meetings it hosted, including ten regional events that had a combined 1500 attendees, seventy small group discussions with associations and organizations, and an online survey that garnered more than 11,200 responses. Many stakeholders wanted Ohio to lower the n-size for all the aforementioned reasons, but a significant number feared that such a change would negatively impact school and district performance on report cards. Ohio, for example, holds schools accountable for closing achievement gaps, and some superintendents and practitioners were concerned that subscores based on such a small number of students could negatively impact their school grades. And indeed, there’s some merit to that. Fordham has recommended that we keep subgroup performance in the school grading system for transparency purposes, but not assign A–F ratings for individual subgroups.

Nevertheless, the positives of lowering the n-size to fifteen outweigh the negatives. As Ohio explained in its ESSA plan, decreasing the threshold increases the percentage of students in each subgroup whose performance matters for report card calculations and increases the number of schools who are held accountable for the achievement of these students. These data would, among other things, provide a clearer and more useful picture of schools, and would help the state identify which ones need targeted and comprehensive support in educating their harder-to-serve students.

Ohio’s ESSA plan explains how different n-sizes capture different percentages of disadvantaged subgroups for accountability purposes. For example, with the old n-size of thirty, only 51.8 percent of ELLs, 51.5 percent of Hispanic children, and 37.6 percent of multiracial pupils statewide were included in schools’ subgroup analyses. But lowering the n-size to fifteen increases those figures to 71.9 percent 72.6 percent, and 68.6 percent, respectively.

Senate Bill 216

Enter S.B. 216, billed as an effort to deregulate education that includes extensive changes to teacher evaluations, assessments, College Credit Plus, and more. The legislation has several promising measures that have attracted support from a broad group of stakeholders. However, as noted earlier, it also contains a provision requiring Ohio to set a minimum n-size of thirty, threatening to undo more than a year’s worth of engagement, research, and advocacy centered on ensuring all students are served.

Proponents of S.B. 216 have argued that the lower n-size increases statistical variability and volatility and risks violating students’ confidentiality. But ODE appears to have given serious thought to these issues; it stated in its ESSA plan, for example, that an n-size of fifteen is a statistically sound number for disaggregation. ODE isn’t an outlier in this regard, as thirteen states have set n-sizes of ten or fewer, and nine states set theirs between eleven and twenty students.

Fortunately, several groups have testified in opposition to S.B. 216’s n-size increase, including the Ohio 8 Coalition, Disability Rights Ohio, members of the Ohio Latino Connection, and more. State Superintendent Paolo DeMaria testified as an interested party and explained ODE’s reasoning for adopting an n-size of fifteen: “Too often, gifted students, English language learners and students with disabilities are excluded from a school’s subgroup analysis with an n-size of thirty. The needs of these students are no less important than others. I feel it is important to allow the phase-in, as planned, and provide an incentive for every school to focus on improving outcomes for all their students.”

Superintendent DeMaria is right. If we truly care about closing achievement gaps and increasing student achievement among all students, then the current plan to phase in an n-size of fifteen is the correct move. Ohio has a track record of walking back sound accountability decisions, especially as of late. But ESSA presented Ohio with a unique opportunity to engage a wide variety of stakeholders on the n-size issue, and an incredible number of groups voiced their support for reducing it. For those in the advocacy space, that’s a win. More importantly, it’s a win for students who have been neglected by our schools for far too long.

[1] This slideshow is from the 2017 Ohio Latino Education Summit, at which I was a presenter on n-size.

Madison Yoder
Madison Yoder the communications and policy associate for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute