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Fact-Checking Arne Duncan's CORE Waiver Subgroup Claim

In announcing special flexibility waivers for eight California school districts yesterday, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan made a very big deal out of one particular detail of the plan—the "n" size.

In fact, Duncan portrayed the "n" size—that wonky term for how big subgroups of students must be in order to count their test scores for school accountability—as one of the most compelling reasons, if not the most compelling, for him to green light the waiver for Los Angeles, San Francisco, and six other districts that are part of the California Office to Reform Education, or CORE.

Duncan spoke repeatedly about the more than 150,000 students in the CORE districts who will no longer be "invisible" under the terms of the waiver, as they have been under the rules of No Child Left Behind. He had high praise for the eight districts and their "courage" to drop their subgroup size from 100, as required under the state's current NCLB plan, to 20, and highlighted in a press release the large numbers of under-served students in the CORE districts where schools will now be accountable for how well they are doing. These are kids who historically lag behind academically: English-learners, students with disabilities, racial and ethnic minorities, and children from low-income families.

In his remarks to reporters, Duncan also said he worries about students across the rest of California "that will remain invisible under the No Child Left Behind System."

But have those students that the secretary cited been as invisible as he says?

It turns out that the case of the "n" size is a little more nuanced.

It's true that under NCLB, for California schools in which a subgroup population makes up less than 15 percent of enrollment, the "n" size for accountability is 100 students, said Paul Hefner, a spokesman for the state department of education. But in schools where a subgroup makes up 15 percent or more of the population, the NCLB "n" size is 50 students, he said.

Also, with the recent overhaul to California's school funding formula, the subgroup size for all schools will drop to 30 students under the state's accountability system starting in the 2013-14 school year. So waiver or not, the subgroup sizes were going to shrink for the CORE districts under the new state accountability rules.

Rick Miller, the executive director of CORE, explained that the 150,000 students in the CORE districts cited by Duncan were not being counted in their schools' federal accountability, regardless of whether the subgroup size was 100 or 50.

Miller also said that the smaller subgroup size of 30 required under the new state funding formula for schools is great, but "it's not for federal accountability, just for the state." He noted that the CORE districts had already committed to dropping the subgroup size to 20 before the state agreed to lower its number to 30.

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