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ESSA Wonk Alert: Can ED Set a Maximum 'N' Size? And What Should It Be?

The U.S. Department of Education's proposed accountability regulations for the Every Student Succeeds Act would let too many English-language learners, students in special education, minorities, and disadvantaged slip through the cracks, according to a report for the Alliance for Excellent Education, an advocacy organization.

The proposed regulations allow states to pick any "n" size, or minimum number of students from a particular group that a school would have to have for that group to count for accountability purposes. But the draft rules say if it states want to go above 30, they must justify it. (Thirty is currently a middle-of-the-road "n" size according to this report from the department.)

So, for instance, if a state's "n" size is 20  and a school has 18 English language learners in the 3rd grade, the school wouldn't have to break out its test data relative to other kids. And it wouldn't necessarily have to take action if they aren't performing well. The idea behind an n-size is to protect student privacy, and make sure the data that identifies which schools need help is statistically sound. 

The Alliance is recommending states set an "n" size of 10 or below. Right now, only 13 states are at or below that number, according to the Alliance. And eight have a number of 40 or more, the report says.

How did the Alliance arrive at 10? That's the number recommended by this National Center for Education Statistics report, as well as this report from the Office for Civil Rights. And the organization says changes in ESSA from its predecessor, the No Child Left Behind Act—including looking beyond just a test score to gauge school performance and identifying schools for improvement every three years—speaks to the need for a lower n-size than the average under NCLB. 

"A high n-size could mean 'no action' for many students, especially students of color and students from low-income families who make up roughly half of all K-12 students, yet graduate from high school at rates much lower than other students," said Alliance for Excellent Education President Bob Wise in a statement.

The department can't just tell states what their "n" size has to be, though. ESSA, which seeks to crack down on the federal role in K-12, makes it really clear that the "n" size is supposed to be state-determined. In fact, it says so at least three different times in the text. And at one point, it specifically prohibits the education secretary from setting a minimum "n" size or from telling any state what its "n" size should be. It does, however, call for states to justify and explain the "n" size they choose, and to use the same "n" size for all groups of kids.

The Alliance, however, sees a way to handle this. Here's what it says in the report:  

ED should issue regulations under ESSA that prohibit states from setting an n-size above 10 students for reporting and accountability purposes unless the state demonstrates that setting a higher number would not exclude a significant number of students and schools. Under this regulation, states still would maintain the flexibility to set an n-size below 10 students.

ED has the authority to place these parameters around the state determination of n-size to ensure that states meet reporting and accountability requirements under ESSA. Although under ESSA, the U.S. Secretary of Education is prohibited from setting a minimum number of students needed to form a subgroup, there is no language within ESSA prohibiting the Secretary from setting a maximum n-size or a cap. (ESSA experts/ed-geeks: Do you agree that ED has this authority?)  

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