Loophole Madness!

Yesterday’s AP story has set off all sorts of reverberations. Couple of things worth keeping in mind. First, a reader of some of the back and forth might end up thinking that the law requires some minimum subgroup or that the feds set the subgroup size. It doesn’t, they don’t. Here are the exact AYP regulations from the Federal Register (pdf) and here is Ed Trust’s explanatory piece. It’s left up to the states although the feds approve the state plans and consequently have approved the various sizes in effect now. Now they’re trying to figure out how to clean up (pdf) some of the mess they’ve created.

Second, you’re always going to have some number of unreported/”unaccountable” minority kids unless you have an n size of 1, meaning you report each child’s score. If you set the subgroup size at 25, there will be schools with 20 African-American or Hispanic students, at 45 there will be schools with 40 etc… In a system of 48 million kids, many of whom are minorities, all those underreported kids will add up to some nationally eye-popping number that sells papers but really doesn’t convey the reality on the ground. The real challenge is balancing statistical soundness with accountability for traditionally under-served students in a resonably defensible way. This is an art not a science.

So, it’s not really fair to call this a “loophole” because it’s right there in the law very deliberately. That said, it does call attention to two important issues, the flexibility- prescriptive tension in a national policy like this and the extent to which states will try to game the law. As the President himself might say, accountability is hard work. And until people stop thinking of the schools, school districts, and states as the clients here and instead start thinking of the kids in those terms this stuff will continue.

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